SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — An Illinois House panel voted Wednesday to allow graduate-student researchers to form unions after a week of heated discussion over whether research counts as work.
The House Labor and Commerce Committee voted 15-10 to expand bargaining rights to all graduate students. State law allows students who work as teaching assistants to unionize but not those who work as research assistants.
The measure, which the Senate approved last month, moves to the House floor for a vote.
Rep. Will Guzzardi, sponsor of the legislation, called current law poorly written. The Chicago Democrat said graduate students are often simultaneously teaching assistants and research assistants, but can only receive union protections when performing teaching duties.
Opponents argued research furthers a student's own education and can't be counted as work.
Zoe MacDowell Kaswan, a second year doctoral student studying neuroscience at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said she is in the position Guzzardi aims to remedy. She has union protections while she works as a teaching assistant throughout the year, but loses those benefits when she works as a research assistant over the summer.
She said that research assistants want to unionize not because they're necessarily looking for more money or benefits, but because they want a uniform way to address long hours, sexual harassment and other workplace conditions.
"We're expected to work 60 to 70 hours a week with no vacation," said MacDowell Kaswan. "So research assistants want to address those types of issues, they want to address sexual harassment. It won't even necessarily cost the university anything."
The University of Illinois, which is against the plan, said in a statement that there are "multiple, distinct pathways for addressing concerns" that don't require union representation.
Opponents also maintain that while teaching a class is clearly work, academic research is part of furthering a graduate student's education and therefore doesn't deserve union protection.
Republican Rep. Steve Reick of Woodstock said that research assistants "have the luxury of doing research" as part of their degree which is a "reasonable justification" to exclude them from union rolls.
MacDowell Kaswan agreed students benefit, but noted that a dissertation written on research "also funds the university and brings the university prestige."
The National Labor Relations Board opened the door in 2016 for graduate students — both teaching and research assistants — to unionize at private universities. Unions at public universities are subject to state law. Michigan also bars research assistants from unionizing.