Grad employees set to strike at UIUC

November 10, 2009

Leighton Christiansen, a GEO steward and graduate assistant in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, describes the issues surrounding a possible graduate employees strike.

URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill.--Graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) voted 92 percent in favor of a strike after the administration's bargaining team presented grads with an insulting contract.

More than 2,600 graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs) are covered under a contract between the University of Illinois Board of Trustees (BOT) and the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), International Federation of Teachers/American Federation of Teachers Local 6300.

GEO members are seeking a living wage for graduate employees. By the university's own living-wage analysis, it takes $16,086 for a single person to live in Urbana-Champaign. TAs and GAs working a 50-percent/nine-month appointment earn the contract minimum of just $13,430.

UIUC TAs teach more than 23 percent of all credit hours, while not earning enough to live on. Perhaps UIUC should change its motto from "Learning and Labor" to "Learning to Labor for Less."

GEO members are also demanding that tuition waivers for graduate employees be written into the contract, as protection against budget-cutting. Tuition waivers are key to a majority of GEO members. Without tuition waivers, no pay increase would allow them to afford getting an education at UIUC.

TAs and GAs have been working without a contract since August 15. The UI bargaining team has been stalling since negotiations opened in April, only presenting their first counter-proposal on August 11.

GEO members have turned out in the hundreds at rallies and work-ins this semester, publicizing their demands. Many more will get on the bus November 12 to protest outside the BOT meeting in Springfield. The Board must ultimately approve the contract, but so far, they have let the UIUC's bargaining team stall.

The administration has been claiming they can't afford the GEO's demands for a living wage, because of the economic crisis. However, they had no problem finding half a million dollars to give ex-Chancellor Richard Herman and ex-President Joseph White--the key figures behind the a current admissions scandal--fat golden parachutes. To add insult to injury, both will remain at the University of Illinois as professors.

The GEO proposal would add just $2.6 million to the UI budget, or less than 0.2 percent. Taking back the golden parachutes would fund a good chunk of the GEO's proposal.

UIUC's claims about a budget crisis just don't hold water. State revenues for the UIUC in fiscal year 2010 are slated to go up by 1.1 percent--far less of an increase than is needed, true, but it isn't a cut. Further, UIUC had one of its top-five fundraising years ever in fiscal 2009, despite the clout scandal and the recession. Why? Because people think that education should be a priority, even in tough economic times.

It's too bad that the UIUC administration doesn't share these priorities. The percentage of the UIUC budget directed to instruction rose only 0.8 percent last year. Yet administrative units, such as the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement (what ever that is), received double-digit increases.

The graduate employees are demanding the university get its priorities straight and focus on education. We are willing to demonstrate the centrality of our labor to instruction at UIUC by withholding all teaching, grading, student advising and technical support.

A tentative strike date has been set for November 16. However, a strike may start at any time this week if the university's bargaining team does not begin to move. The GEO's unanimous intent-to-strike vote in early October forced the administration to schedule emergency bargaining session. But their offers were not serious.

GEO members know that this fight is part of a larger attack on public education, and that a victory here can have a larger impact. GEO member also know that the UIUC only works because we do--and that it can't work if we don't.

Further Reading

From the archives