Union members meet

By James Anderson

The union for graduate assistants at Southern Illinois University Carbondale held its spring semester general membership meeting February 26, and activists presented on issues ranging from bargaining to officer elections and health insurance initiatives.

Bob Velez, president of Graduate Assistants United, told members that because of winter break and other difficulties “harmonizing schedules,” the GAU bargaining team had not met with the administration’s team for almost three months.

“We’ve raised the issues we want to raise,” Velez said, “but we haven’t crafted any language at all.”

He added both teams are now considering negotiating together after normal working hours or on the weekend in order to decide on language and work toward a new contract agreement.

Velez reminded those in attendance of the “indirect” benefit graduate student workers derive from union membership.

“The biggest benefit, especially during bargaining, is when the administration sees activity,” he said. Graduate assistants “don’t get anything through administrative benevolence,” Velez said, and more membership and participation means “a little more clout at the bargaining table.”

Kevin Taylor, the GAU vice president for communications, told members officer elections would be held earlier this year. Instead of taking place during finals week like last year, Taylor said, elections for the four elected union positions this semester would be on April 8 in the Student Center and April 9 in Morris Library.

Amanda Barnard, the vice president for graduate school affairs with the graduate professional student council, explained the status of health insurance transition at SIUC.

Barnard was one of three students on the six-person taskforce committee that recommended a new student health insurance plan for the university.

The plan proposed by the taskforce committee, a gold level Aetna plan, would include aspects of health care not currently enjoyed by students, Barnard said, including: preventative care like screenings and physicals; pharmacy benefits with a typical $10 co-pay; free birth control; and removal of limits on the amount of physical therapy and mental health visits a student can have.

She said the deductible would stay the same at $100, and the maximum out-of-pocket cost would remain $1,000. The plan would increase the cost of health insurance by about $148 per semester, said Barnard, who has so far served two years on the taskforce committee that recommended the plan.

The administration has already acceded to the plan and recommended it to the Board of Trustees, she added. The Board of Trustees will be formally presented the plan at their next meeting on March 19. Students will speak at the meeting, and a postcard campaign in support of the plan is underway, Barnard said.

Multiple graduate assistants at the membership meeting signed postcards in support of better health insurance to be delivered to the Board of Trustees.

“All the other major Illinois state universities already have an ACA compliant health insurance plan in place,” Barnard said, referring to the Affordable Care Act and the obligations institutions have to meet the legislation’s standards.

Natalie Nash, the GAU vice president for membership, mentioned that March 19, after the Board of Trustees meeting that day, the union has planned a re-screening of the PhD comics film. Nash encouraged graduate assistants to also come out for a happy hour at Pinch Penny Pub on March 28.

She went on to explain the principle of fair share, a requirement that historically has helped union’s remain strong. Fair share refers to the contractual provision providing that every person working in a position covered under a collective bargaining agreement pay dues to their union as a fair share of the costs that union takes on to institute workplace protections, garner employees better labor conditions, secure benefits and obtain higher wages for workers.

“How it works at SIU, is if we at some point get more than 50 percent of GAs on campus to join our union, then all the GAs on campus will pay fair share dues,” she said. “That’s just to go toward paying those services rendered from the union and getting those bargaining benefits.”

Fair share money cannot by law be used to support political candidates, Nash added, assuaging common – but misguided – concerns. The Illinois Public Relations Act stipulates fair share dues “shall not include any fees for contributions related to the election or support of any candidate for political office.”

Graduate assistants raised questions at the meeting about potential signs of union solidarity against Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s recent executive order prohibiting public sector unions from requiring fair share payments. Some mentioned coordinating solidarity actions against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s stated intent to sign so-called “right to work” legislation.

Recently, Walker implicitly compared pro-union activists in Wisconsin to ISIS, an organization in the Middle East the US has bombed. He also said he will sign, if given the opportunity, the “right to work” bill which just passed the Wisconsin state senate and is moving to the state’s Assembly for approval.

Termed “right to work,” the present-day meaning deviates radically from the mid-nineteenth century meaning of the phrase, which referred to society’s responsibility to allow everyone meaningful work under decent conditions with adequate remuneration. The present-day legislation, advanced in Wisconsin and favored by Rauner in Illinois, aims to undermine collective bargaining by allowing workers to opt-out of paying costs for union representation.

John Flowers, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at SIUC, said GAU’s Legislative and Political Action Committee, which he chairs, would be open to facilitating a solidarity campaign with other workers against any anti-union legislation.

Sandy Kim, chair of the GAU grievance committee, said LPAC should spearhead that project.

Kim also addressed her grievance work. Recently, she said, sick leave has been a recurring point of contention between graduate assistants and the university.

“We all get sick leave,” she said. “We get four hours. So it’s not a lot, right, but it’s a class that you teach, or discussion sections or four hours of office time.”

Kim said she has helped GAs resolve issues with the university regarding contested sick leave. She said she also regularly fields questions from GAs about the number of hours they are contracted to work, and she has helped see through to arbitration a long-pursued grievance against the English department at SIUC. The grievance pertains to the department’s practices of requiring GAs to work for two weeks without pay.

Grievance work helps you learn the contract really well, Kim said. Anyone who is detail-oriented could be a tremendous asset to the committee, she added.

Taylor, who also serves as chair of the union’s communications committee, said there are plenty of ways to get involved. That could entail volunteering for one of the union committees, putting academia-acquired skills to work or taking on union tasks to learn new things “because it makes you a human being to diversify,” he said, as members in attendance ate free Quatro’s pizza provided by the union.

Taylor referenced the “self-taught,” and “resume-building, on-the-job work,” he has performed since getting actively involved with the union in early 2014 and helping revamp GAU communications.

Anyone interested in running for office or getting involved, he said, can send an email to gau.siuc@gmail.com.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

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