Rauner vetoes bill allowing university research assistants to join unions

Rauner vetoes bill allowing university research assistants to join unions

SPRINGFIELD — A bill that would have allowed research assistants to join employee unions at Illinois public universities has been vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Senate Bill 2546 amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act to include all graduate assistants in the definition of an educational employee. Previously, the term applied to teaching assistants but not research assistants or other graduate assistants.

Under the legislation, approved in May, graduate students who receive tuition waivers and pay to do research or other "pre-professional" duties would no longer be considered students under the labor act, allowing them to join the Graduate Employees Organization or other unions.

"Classifying them as employees would change the relationship between graduate students and professors, which is at the core of graduate education, from cooperative and mentoring to transactional," Rauner said in his veto message.

"This change overlooks the pre-professional, career-building nature of the training that graduate research assistant and other graduate assistant positions provide. Treating graduate assistants as employees and not students ignores the personal nature of the graduate educational process, where individual students make choices in their best educational and career interests."

The bill passed the Illinois Senate by a vote of 34-19 on April 19 and the House by a vote of 34-19 on May 30 — both short of the three-fifths majority required to override the governor's veto.

The GEO chapter at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus criticized Rauner's action and pledged to continue to push for the change, saying research assistants perform "invaluable and lucrative labor for our universities."

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said the university objected to opening up the bargaining unit to research assistants and pre-professional graduate students "because their research activities are not work but are a fundamental part of their graduate education."

The GEO staged an 11-day strike last spring before reaching a new five-year agreement with the university, primarily over fears that the UI would curtail tuition waivers. The contract guarantees tuition waivers for any teaching assistant or graduate assistant with a quarter-time appointment or more, and provided expanded health coverage and three years of wage increases.

Gus Wood, who was co-president of GEO last spring, said the veto wasn't a surprise, especially given Rauner's re-election campaign.

"Unfortunately, Governor Rauner is still dead-set on limiting or weakening the power of unions in the state of Illinois," Wood said.

"Of course, it's to the detriment of so many graduate workers who do so much great research at the campus and literally are responsible for so much money coming into the campus."