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Mediated Talks Begin Between ISU, Graduate Workers Union

Carleigh Gray
Illinois State University graduate student union organizers on the Quad during a 2017 event.

Illinois State University says it’s committed to “good-faith negotiations” now that a federal mediator has joined contract talks with the graduate workers union.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represents ISU’s approximately 400 graduate teaching assistants. Thursday’s 22nd negotiating session between ISU and the union was the first under the guidance of an independent mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

“ISU has and will continue to work diligently to reach a fair and fiscally responsible contract agreement that addresses concerns raised by the SEIU without disruption to the teaching and learning environment at ISU,” President Larry Dietz said Thursday in a message shared with the campus community.

His message answered some of the public claims made by union leaders about how the negotiations have unfolded.

“Let me begin by unequivocally affirming ISU’s respect for the important contributions of our graduate teaching assistants, as well as our commitment to the mediation process and to ongoing good-faith negotiations with SEIU Local 73,” Dietz wrote.

The graduate teaching assistants voted to organize in October 2018. ISU and the union began negotiating in October 2019. The union has accused ISU of stalling; Dietz says the union declined all of the meeting dates ISU initially proposed.

“Since (October 2019), we have met six times face-to-face and 15 times via video conference for bargaining sessions with the union,” said Dietz. “Under normal circumstances, it is not uncommon for negotiations over the first contract for a new bargaining unit to take more than one year; however, our progress was also impacted by the need to transition the University’s academic and administrative operations to an online, hybrid format to protect the health and safety of our campus community during the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

Steven Lazaroff, a union member and Ph.D. student in the Department of English, said the university has been using the pandemic as a delay tactic. 

Dietz said negotiations with SEIU first focused solely on resolving the non-economic issues. As a result, over the first 15 negotiation sessions, ISU and the union reached tentative agreements on 17 non-economic proposals, Dietz said.

“Consistent with our shared value of ensuring a professional and respectful workplace for all employees, ISU has advocated that this contract, like all other collective bargaining agreements on our campus, include strong anti-discrimination language based on applicable federal and state law, as well as robust and fair resolution processes that allow us to swiftly address any issues of concern,” said Dietz.

ISU also has requested “no-strike/no-lockout clauses consistent with language in all other university collective bargaining agreements that keep negotiations at the bargaining table and protect students and other employees from interruptions or disruptions to the teaching and learning environment,” Dietz said.

“To date, we have not reached agreement with SEIU on these issues,” he said.

Economic issues, including pay and tuition waivers, also remain pending.

“We are committed to ensuring that all graduate teaching assistants are compensated fairly and competitively even as we deal with the ongoing fiscal challenges facing public higher education, as well as the recent adverse economic impact of COVID-19 on our students, faculty, staff, and community,” said Dietz. “We are hopeful that SEIU joins us in the goal of reaching agreement on the outstanding issues to be resolved and that they will agree to schedule additional sessions with the federal mediator as needed.”

In a statement after Thursday's negotiations, the union issued a statement saying it was "hopeful that mediation will move us towards a resolution."

"But it takes both parties to be willing to address each other’s concerns in order to reach agreement," the union said. "We do see a clear path to a good contract, which we believe will involve picketing and other actions, because the University appears unwilling to move otherwise."