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Grad students at SLU begin unionization drive

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons

Even before the National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that graduate student assistants at private universities have the right to form unions, Elizabeth Eikmann and her colleagues at Saint Louis University were talking about organizing.

Now, their campaign has begun.

“We all just sort of feel like it's time for this,” Eikmann said Thursday. “Grad students have been working toward this for decades and have wanted this for decades. And so it's time, and we're ready and we're excited.”

Eikmann and her fellow graduate student assistants at SLU want to form a unit of the Service Employees International Union, just like part-time faculty at the university and other area campuses have done.

When the part-time faculty members worked to unionize, the administration at the university was relatively neutral on the issue, providing information but no arguments for one side or the other.

On Thursday, a SLU spokesman said the university will have to study the new NLRB ruling before taking a position on the grad students’ unionization effort.

Eikmann, who is a Ph.D. student in American studies, said discussions among grad students for a union began in the summer, to prioritize what issues they feel are important. Health insurance appears to be close to the top of the list, she said, and the students feel a kinship with their colleagues on campuses nationwide.

“It's exciting to know how it will affect graduate students and people just like me across the nation, across my own campus, across St. Louis,” she said.

She was not sure how many graduate students would be affected, and she said there is no timetable for the effort, though she would love to see it completed by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The NLRB ruling issued on Tuesday, in a case from Columbia University in New York, overturned an earlier prohibition against grad student organizing. The new 3-1 decision said the earlier precedent, from 2004, had “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

Unionization has been spreading among adjunct faculty at campuses throughout the St. Louis area, with chapters of the SEIU now in place at Washington University, St. Louis Community College and elsewhere as well as at SLU. A union drive at Webster University failed in the face of administration opposition.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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