Grad employees strike at UIUC

November 16, 2009

More than 1,000 members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) were set to strike the morning of November 16 to show their determination to resist the university administration's efforts to drive down their standard of living.

GEO, which is Illinois Federation of Teachers/American Federation of Teachers Local 6300, has prepared for this fight with weeks of meetings, rallies and efforts to build solidarity among students, other university employees and the local labor movement. Leighton Christiansen, a graduate assistant at the School of Library and Information Science and a shop steward and strike committee member, talked about the background to this struggle.

WHAT LED to the strike?

TEACHING ASSISTANTS and graduate assistants at the UIUC campus have been working without a contract since August 15, when our previous contract expired.

GEO had opened bargaining with the UIUC administration back in April 2009, hoping that contract negotiations could be completed before the start of the fall semester. The administration dragged its feet, ignoring every proposal from the GEO, and only offered its own proposal August 11, four days before the contract was set to expire.

The administration's proposal was an attack on the GEO. They wanted to eliminate our right to grieve over discrimination cases. They wanted to prohibit us from reopening the contract in the event of a major change at the University of Illinois that would affect our employment. They wanted us to accept language that would codify furloughs into the contract. These furloughs were not defined in any way, basically meaning the administration could lay off teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs) for any length of time or for any particular day they chose.

GEO members at the University of Illinois hold a press conference
GEO members at the University of Illinois hold a press conference

In effect, this would lead to TAs and GAs working the same amount of hours, teaching the same number of classes, and grading the same amount of assignments for less money.

In our final bargaining session prior to the strike, the university backed down on some of its worst demands. It removed the proposed contract language on contract reopeners as well as the demands on furloughs. The administration also agreed to boost the minimum stipend by 3 percent per year, which would raise it from about $13,400 to $14,800.

But even with the increase, the minimum would still be $2,000 below the average annual stipend, and more than $1,000 below what's considered a living minimum wage for this area, according to the university's own estimates. And for those making more than the minimum, there would be a three-year wage freeze.

WHAT ABOUT the tuition waivers that graduate employees receive?

GRADUATE STUDENTS who employed by UIUC as TAs or GAs and work 10 to 30 hours per week do get a tuition waiver. But that waiver covers in-state tuition, so out-of-state students and international students still have a hefty tuition bill, even with the waiver.

The tuition waiver is granted by the Board of Trustees as a benefit of employment. It's not currently written into any contract, so the Board of Trustees can take that benefit-- which may amount to $8,000 to $10,000 per academic year--away at any time.

In fact, in the spring of 2009, the Board of Trustees centered their crosshairs on the tuition waiver to see if, by eliminating it, they could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. After the spring protests forced the Board of Trustees to back away from eliminating tuition waivers, the GEO set out to get tuition waivers codified in our contract, thereby guaranteeing tuition waivers as a term of employment.

In the past weeks, we've heard from numerous graduate employees that they can find a way to live with a 0 percent wage increase, but if tuition waivers are taken away, they will not be able to afford their education and will have to drop out. Many have told us explicitly that this is the key issue that brings them out on strike.

In the final bargaining session, the administration proposed a side letter stipulating that if the state reduced or cancelled tuition waivers, they would agree to bargain with us over the issue. But that isn't good enough. Graduate employees aren't willing to accept this contract or the administration's stated reason for seeking concessions--the current recession.

GIVEN THE recession, does the GEO really think the university has the money to cover their demands?

THE GEO believes the university is using the excuse of the budget crisis to erode the living standards of graduate employees and weaken the union.

The real crisis in education on this campus is the upside-down spending priorities of UIUC. In past years, the percentage of money spent on an already bloated administrative apparatus has seen double-digit increases for such nebulous offices as the Vice Provost for University Advancement.

At the same time, the increase in the budget for instruction has only been 1 percent. The administration seems to treat UIUC as its own personal piggy bank.

For example, this past summer, UIUC was embroiled in an admissions scandal, in which politically connected but academically inferior undergraduates were granted admission through backroom deals with politicos and certain UIUC administrators. This scandal forced the resignation of nearly the entire Board of Trustees and University President Joseph White. The legal fees from the investigation amounted to nearly half a million dollars.

In an act of hubris reminiscent of the Wall Street bailout and bonus scandal, UIUC rehired former President White and former Board of Trustees Chancellor Richard Herman as faculty. These two will receive $300,000 to $400,000 each for teaching two classes, as well as other golden parachute perks.

If the UIUC administration was truly interested in funding education, White and Herman would have been fired without compensation for bringing the scandal and forced to pay the legal fees. The money saved could have funded a big chunk of the GEO's living wage proposal for graduate employees. This is just one very public example of the completely wrong prioritization of university funds that would be better spent on education.

DO YOU see this as part of a broader attack on education?

ABSOLUTELY. IN the past 28 years, funding for public education has been eroded at all levels.

Starting with the Reagan administration, and continuing through Bush, Clinton and Bush, funding for public education at all levels--primary, secondary and higher education--has been slashed. The free marketers pushing this agenda forced colleges and universities into making huge cuts in spending.

They did this in a number of ways. They slashed union jobs by selling off and privatizing essential services such as food service, maintenance and janitorial jobs. These private companies often paid near minimum wage, with little or no health benefits.

Universities began looking for other ways to attract big business dollars to campuses, such as building research facilities, hospitals and labs, and selling naming rights to big businesses, or subsidizing the work of these companies with public tax dollars and tuition. In fact, U.S. capitalism has been looking for ways to profit from every aspect of education for the past three decades.

Universities also began to attack tenured faculty positions. They eliminated faculty, left tenured spots unfilled, hired new faculty into non-tenure-track positions, replaced faculty with graduate teaching assistants at far lower wages and increased class sizes. This has meant fewer jobs, a lower standard of living for those who do teach, and a lower quality of education for students.

It is this race to the bottom that GEO members hope, by going on strike, to reverse. In my personal experience, I have seen the cost of education skyrocket as it has become harder and harder to obtain a quality education.

When I first started my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa in 1986, one credit hour cost $66. By the time I graduated from the same university in 2009, an undergraduate credit hour cost $300. Over that same period, real wages for working-class families have been stagnant.

So more and more students have had to turn to student loans in order to get the education that the American Dream propaganda machine tells us will lead to a better standard of living. That's a lie. Graduating from college with $15,000 to $20,000 of student loan debt is not the path to a better standard of living.

What we need is a more rational higher education system that focuses on turning out well-educated graduates, rather than deeply indebted graduates.

WHAT HAS the GEO been doing to organize while they've been working without a contract?

SINCE AUGUST 15, the GEO has tried to accelerate bargaining with the administration and build pressure by organizing graduate employees. The university's bargaining team has continued to drag its feet, agreeing to extra bargaining sessions only when faced with the early November strike authorization vote and, now, the threat of a November 16 strike.

The GEO has had numerous rallies this semester, including three rallies this week, one at the Board of Trustees meeting in Springfield, Ill., on November 12, in conjunction with a solidarity rally on the UIUC campus, and one with more than 350 graduate employees and supporters outside the bargaining session on November 14.

The GEO has also held weekly work-ins in the student union through October to publicize our work as broadly as possible. GEO members and staffers have gone on an aggressive organizing drive, reaching new departments and bringing total union membership to more than 50 percent of the bargaining unit for the first time in the union's brief history.

The organizing is starting to pay off in bargaining. After the 92 percent strike authorization vote in early November, and following the big rallies of this week, the university bargaining team has pulled some of their most regressive proposals off the table.

However, they are still proposing 0 percent across-the-board cost-of-living increases for the life of the contract. This is unacceptable, because once the economy turns around, graduate employees will not be able to enjoy the benefits of an increased wage.

In a development at the last bargaining session, the administration offered a side letter to the contract that, rather than guaranteeing tuition waivers in the contract, would allow us to reopen contract negotiation should the Board of Trustees eliminate tuition waivers as a cost-cutting measure.

However, the letter would stipulate that the union could only bargain on tuition waivers for domestic in-state students, not international students. This is a blatant attempt to divide our union along national lines. GEO members are not willing to accept this move.

WHAT DETAILS should graduate employees and other people who support your strike know?

WE WILL have a pre-picket line rally at 7:45 a.m. on Monday, November 16 on the main UIUC quad. We want everyone--graduate employees, undergraduates, supporters, and allies--to know that we have the power to disrupt education at UIUC, and the backing of undergraduates and other workers on the campus.

From there, we will be spreading out to our assigned picketed buildings and urging undergraduates not to go to classes or faculty to teach classes in place of striking graduate students.

Support has already been great. Hundreds of undergraduates have signed petitions of support and are organizing and undergraduate/graduate solidarity group. Faculty members have issued letters of support, and many are canceling classes. There are many more people we still need to reach. People who want to volunteer can go to

WHAT KIND of impact will the strike have on other graduate employees' unions and campus labor?

THE GEO contract and strike is being watched by other campus unions and by unions on other Illinois campuses.

I was talking to a member of the UIUC local of the AFSCME during the November 14 bargaining rally, and she told me that they were watching us, because they start bargaining later. They're anxious to see us hold off wage freezes and furloughs. So in a very real sense, the GEO contract will set the bargaining pattern for other campus unions yet to come.

Also, at the November 12 Board of Trustees protest, I had a chance to speak with Normajean Niebur, chapter president of University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) Local 4100, representing support staff at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The administration at the Springfield campus wants the right to furlough employees written into their contract as well. Normajean told me, "There will be no furloughs in the UPI contract. Not even with a gun to my head."

Now, since we forced the administration to pull furloughs off the bargaining table in the GEO contract, UPI members will be able to fight them off as well.

WHAT CAN people do to support this fight?

THE GEO clearly has the momentum at this point. We have broad support across the campus, and we've gained some momentum in the bargaining room recently.

While I can't predict how long this strike will go on, I do know that this week is crucial. We need to shut down classes in the buildings we picket. We need to show the university our collective strength. We need to reach out to undergraduates, community members and other campus unions, and draw them into our fight.

The more support we have and the more bodies we have on the picket line, the greater the impact we can have.

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