Graduate Assistants United (GAU), the union for graduate assistants at Southern Illinois University, elected a new executive committee to represent members on May 6, 2021 which includes just two returning members.
The new committee members said their main priority going into the Fall 2021 semester, beyond their usual responsibilities, is outreach to reinvigorate participation after over a year of remote meetings.
“We sort of have two years of graduate assistants that haven’t really been able to meet face to face then with us,” incoming President Clay Awsumb said. “We’re really looking forward to the ability of trying to connect with these graduate assistants that may have come last year but really haven’t been able to connect or be engaged.”
Incoming Vice President of Communications Peter Owens said that connection helps graduate assistants’ feel stable throughout the year.
“ I don’t have to feel like I’m sort of facing off against academia by myself. I’m a part of a group whose shared goal is to put us all in a position to be successful,” Owens said. “I think that that is just as important as the very tangible gains that the union has managed to obtain for grad students.”
Adededji Disu, a newly elected grievance officer who is originally from Nigeria, said that outreach is especially important for SIU-C’s growing group of international graduate assistants.
“I’ve had a firsthand experience of what it means to actually live in SIU as an international student,” Disu said.
GAU helped him and others address pay issues when their check were held up by a paperwork backlog.
“It took almost two months for us to get our first paycheck,” Disu said “Rent was pending, bills were pending and all that.”
The new leaders are also looking ahead to 2022 when they will potentially go to the bargaining table for a new contract, Awsumb said.
“We just actually did a survey in the spring to get a sense of where our membership or graduate assistants are,” Awsumb said. “Pay has been a huge issue on campus, generally, you know, like, there hasn’t been an honest cost of living raise, let alone other types of pay increases for, I think, a decade at the university.”
Disu said the GAU could do a lot to push for raises, reductions in fees or other programs to improve the quality of life for graduate assistants.
“Some [graduate assistants] are paid $700 per month” Disu said. “By the time you pay rent, you pay bills and all that what is left?”
Awsumb said contract negotiations have been put off for years as SIU has battled a series of financial crises.
“First the recession actually going back that far, and then it was the budget crisis, stuff and now, more recently, the pandemic,” Awsumb said.
Alex Lockwood, who is returning to the executive committee as chief steward after previously serving as treasurer, said he hopes the pandemic will encourage GAU membership to become more active.
“A broad hope for the upcoming year is that like COVID-19, may galvanize incoming grad students,” Lockwood said. “Not just for themselves, but… to change the position of graduate assistants for the better in the future.”
Graduate assistants around the United States cited the pandemic as the spark for a blaze of union organizing around the country that included, notably, a union drive in the University of California system with the United Auto Workers which would represent 17,000 higher education workers if the vote is approved.
“We were aware of it and we’re supportive of those actions generally,” Lockwood said. “Big motions by grad student unions across the country are, you know, informing our ideas about what the unions are capable of.”
Staff reporter Jason Flynn can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.