Illinois House Passes Bill Clarifying Graduate Employee Union Rights

The Illinois House of Representatives late Thursday passed a bill that would end a three-year conflict between the University of Illinois and its 5,000 graduate student employees. House Bill 1208 amends the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act to include in the definition of “educational employee” graduate students employed by state universities. The bill confirms that Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants and Graduate Assistants are indeed employees with the right to unionize.
The vote was 68 for and 47 against, and the bill now moves on to the Senate.
Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, a co-sponsor of the 1983 Educational Labor Relations Act said on the House floor that the legislature did not intend to exclude graduate employees from coverage under the Act. HB 1208 will “resolve any ambiguity which has existed with respect to the intended meaning of the [student] exemption, and thereby eliminate the need for continuing disputes before the IELRB and in the courts,” she said.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization calls on the University administration to end its opposition to bargaining with graduate employees.
Over 3,000 graduate employees on the Urbana-Champaign campus supported a petition for a union representation election in 1996, but the University disputed their right to unionize. In 1997 the G.E.O. won by a wide margin a representation election monitored by the Champaign-Urbana Religious Workers Association. The G.E.O. is appealing a 1998 ruling by the Educational Labor Relations Board that graduate employees are not covered by state labor law because they are enrolled as students while they work for the University.
Graduate employees bargain collectively at 20 universities nation-wide, including the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and New York. In addition, representation elections are pending in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and California.
The bill is sponsored by Representatives Todd Stroger, Connie Howard, Larry McKeon, Lou Jones, and Mary Flowers. H.B. 1208 is a one-sentence amendment to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act stating that “the term ‘student’ does not include a graduate student employed by an institution of higher education.”