Militant Journalism

Graduate student library workers fight for those who will come after them in Illinois

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduate students work in the library system teaching research skills to undergraduates, maintaining archives and staffing information desks. Their labor connects students and scholars to UIUC’s massive research collections, which are the fourth largest in the United States. Since the position was created over 20 years ago, they’ve done so without a union contract. 

But that’s about to change. Pre-professional graduate assistants are organizing to be officially represented by the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union that represents teaching assistants and graduate assistants on UIUC’s campus. 

Even though PGAs do very similar work to that of other graduate student workers, they have been kept out of GEO’s bargaining unit. When GEO formed in 2002, UIUC created the PGA position to keep some workers out of the union’s contract. To do so, they drew on an Illinois law that categorized research assistants and PGAs as not being workers (despite their regular working hours, supervisors and taxable income). “This is one of UIUC’s favorite tactics,” said Lesley Owens, GEO officer and Party for Socialism and Liberation organizer. “Dividing workers so that it’s harder for us to fight together for better working conditions.” 

But in 2019, the Illinois state government passed Illinois House Bill 253 overturning this distinction. This allowed PGA organizers to begin their campaign to unionize in January of 2024. 

Joining the GEO contract will guarantee PGAs access to a contracted minimum wage, fee waivers, subsidized summer healthcare and a grievance process in cases of discipline or dismissal. They can also fight back against required hourly overtime. 

The most significant benefit a contract would give PGAs are guaranteed tuition waivers. Without these waivers, most PGAs would not be able to continue with graduate school. “I would not have been able to go to graduate school without my tuition waiver,” said Jason Smith, a key organizer in the unionization drive. “I do not have the resources to fund grad school, nor do I want to take out more loans.”

Most PGAs at UIUC work in the libraries and are enrolled in UIUC’s master’s program in libraries and information science. They are at UIUC for only two years, meaning that the program’s high turnover has made unionization tricky. However, as recent organizing at Amazon has demonstrated, unionization is possible despite high turnover. 

For Marly Santora, a PGA and a lead organizer in the unionization drive, the high turnover in their workplaces gives greater moral weight to the necessity of unionizing. “I think it’s important for us as a class of workers that cycles in and out of the university every couple years to fight for those that come after us,” she said.

Also like workers at Amazon, PGAs are unionizing in a sector where unionized workplaces are rare. With only 26% of library workers in the United States unionized, PGAs are part of a growing uphill battle of expanding worker democracy in U.S. libraries. Their success stands to benefit unionizing drives nationally as each graduated PGA will bring with them the experience of being a part of a union into libraries across the country. 

Feature photo: The Main Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where many pre-professional graduate assistants work. Liberation photo

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