Graduate students urged to unionize

By Gus Bode

Union organizer speaks at SIUC

A union organizer urged a handful of graduate students Tuesday to take back some of the administration’s power and unionize to stand up for their rights.

“The ones who are doing the educating are the ones in the small groups because you can’t help students 600 at a time,” Steve Vaughn said.


Vaughan, who is now an organizer for the Illinois Education Association, was a leader in the graduate student union movement on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus during the mid-1990s. While attending UIUC for his doctorate in U.S. History, Vaughan was co-president of the Graduate Employee Organization for 6,000 students.

More than 10 students of the steering committee for a graduate student employee union brought Vaughan to the University to talk about the benefits of unionizing. At SIUC, almost 70 percent of its graduate students are also employees on campus.

From bread and butter issues like health insurance and workload to other concerns like parking, he said graduate student employees need clearly defined job descriptions to protect themselves. Unionization also gives graduate students the ability to speak out against abuses without jeopardizing their jobs, Vaughan said.

This is not the first time that SIUC graduate student employees have tried to form a union. In fact, Amy Sileven, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, said this same issue has come up numerous times since she first joined the council in 1998.

But each time, the union effort failed, Sileven said.

“The biggest thing that has impeded this process is the rapid turnover of students,” Sileven said

LeNie Adolphson, a master’s student from Chicago studying history, said another obstacle for unionizing is the stereotype that unions are bad for the workplace.


Vaughan said a union can bring clarity and fairness to the office.

“It’s like inserting democracy in your workplace,” Vaughan said.

Geographic location also plays a large role because southern Illinois seems to be more wary of unions than in Chicago where unions are commonplace, Adolphson said. She said another hurdle is the high turnover rate and not knowing what kind of people will follow them.

“This is a very transient job. None of us are going to be here very long,” said Adolphson, who is also a columnist for the Daily Egyptian. “Even if you don’t personally benefit from it, there will be people who will later.”

Despite having high hopes, Adolphson said she fears the effort will fall again to the same misconceptions.

When Vaughan and his peers began organizing at UIUC, the process took a lot longer because of a law that forbids Illinois students from organizing. That law was struck down recently, and now graduate students have the right to organize.

Gabe Greenspan, a master’s student studying linguistics, attended the meeting and said he believes this time will be different because of the law change. As a member of GPSC, Greenspan said it is frustrating to pass resolutions against fee increases and have it be ignored by the administration because the council is only advisory.

“If we have a union, we could have someone at those meetings, telling them, ‘No, we don’t want you to do this,'” Greenspan said. “People think that we only want to unionize to get more money, but I think of it as more for protection of workers’ rights.”

Reporter Andrea Zimmermann can be reached at [email protected]