After a 12-day strike beginning in February, the University of Illinois and graduate student employees settled on a new contract that includes pay raises and tuition waiver protections. Now lawmakers want to clarify who is eligible for those benefits.
The proposed legislation would allow all graduate assistants to receive union protections and benefits in the state of Illinois. Proponents of the measure say there’s an inconsistency in the current law because it excludes research assistants.
But, Republican state Rep. Steve Reick from Woodstock questioned whether a research assistant's duties would qualify under the terms of the contract.
“If it covers teaching functions, for instance, work rules that define the functions of… and a research assistant doesn’t fall within those work rules, they shouldn’t be covered by it," said Reick. "So let’s find out what those provisions are.”
State Rep. Nick Sauer, a Lake Barrington Republican, also expressed concerns about additional costs for universities.
"We are losing 16,000 Illinois kids who are going to out-of-state, surrounding schools who are never getting back to Illinois," said Sauer. If universities are expected to shell out more cash for graduate student worker benefits, Sauer says Illinois may end up losing more students in the future if tuition costs rise.
The bill sponsor, state Rep. Will Guzzardi , a Chicago Democrat, said these graduate students are the "best and the brightest minds" Illinois has and thinks these incentives will encourage them to stay.
"This is a common argument we hear from Republicans when we talk about collective bargaining rights... is that treating workers with dignity is going to cost so much to employees," said Guzzardi. "If you work you ought to be able to join with your fellow workers and assert your rights to collectively bargain and try to get a decent quality of life for yourself and the employer will find a way to cover the cost of those things.”
The University of Illinois does not support the idea. Spokesperson Tom Hardy released this statement: "The U of I System opposes opening up the bargaining unit to research assistant and pre-professional graduate students because their research activities are not work but are a fundamental part of their graduate education."