By Shannon Vicic
Graduate assistants on the UI's Urbana-Champaign campus aren't eligible to form a union, according to an administrative law judge for the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
The judge dismissed a petition from the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) that would have allowed it to provide union representation for teaching, research and graduate assistants on the Urbana-Champaign campus. The university received Judge Nora Crandall's 20-page decision April 24.
Crandall's ruling hinged on whether graduate assistants could be considered educational employees under the definition provided in the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. Under the act, educational employees are eligible to form and/or join a collective bargaining unit.
The act specifically excludes students from the definition of employees eligible to form or be included in a bargaining unit.
The GEO contended that graduate assistants are employees who have the right to form and/or join a collective bargaining unit. According to the GEO, the student exclusion in the act is ambiguous and, interpreted in its "plain and literal" meaning, is overly broad, which is contrary to the purposes and policy of the act.
The university opposed the GEO petition on the grounds that graduate assistants are students and, as such, are expressly excluded from the act's definition of employees eligible to form or be included in a bargaining unit. The university maintained that the word "student" is not ambiguous and that "the plain language and ordinary meaning" of the term should be applied.
The judge sided with the university, dismissing the petition on the grounds that teaching, research and graduate assistants fall within the definition of students.
Because graduate assistants must be admitted and enrolled as students in order to hold assistantship appointments, they do not qualify as educational employees, the judge wrote.
The term "student" is not defined in the statute, and the statute does not suggest that any other meaning should be applied to the term other than its plain and ordinary one, she wrote in her ruling.
The statutes of other states, including Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan and Oregon, do not contain specific student exclusions which preclude graduate assistants from forming or joining a collective bargaining unit.
However, the Illinois statute does contain the student exclusion, and Crandall wrote that it would be "unacceptable" to ignore that exclusion.
"Obviously, the university is pleased that the judge affirmed its interpretation of the law in terms of the right of graduate students to form a union," said Steve Veazie, campus legal counsel.
But the university also is committed to addressing concerns brought up by its graduate students, said Bill Murphy, associate chancellor for public affairs.
"The chancellor and provost are committed to providing competitive stipends and a supportive environment in which its graduate students can work and study," Murphy said.
Murphy pointed out that one of the focal points of the Framework for the Future, the campus' strategic plan, is to sustain the excellence of the campus by investing in people."Maintaining an atmosphere in which the university can attract and retain quality graduate students is essential," he said.
The judge's recommended decision becomes final unless either party files
an appeal within 14 days to the full labor board.