U of I strike starts with a bang

November 17, 2009

Andrew Zimmerer, a member of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on the first day of a strike by grad employees.

THE COLD November rain did little to discourage more than 1,000 members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) who launched their strike November 16 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Money for Jobs and Education! Not For Corrupt Administration!' was a popular chant among students who are angry about the corruption scandal that plagues the university. Many were bitter at the disingenuous anti-GEO e-mails from the interim chancellor and provost that filled the in-boxes of students and faculty before the strike began.

University officials were "saying one thing to the media and saying something else to us at the bargaining table," said Alonzo Ward, a graduate student in African American history. GEO decided to strike following a November 14 bargaining session because the university refused to guarantee tuition wavers for all graduate students.

Even from blocks away, a drum corps, composed mainly of graduate students in the Music Department, made the ground rumble as strikers chanted, "What do we want? Contract!" Support poured out from undergraduates who have formed a solidarity committee to back the grad employees and fight for their own higher education.

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization and supporters on the march at UIUC
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization and supporters on the march at UIUC (Chris Tuck)

There were several other examples of support. Workers for UPS refused to deliver packages in struck buildings. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 73 showed up to march on the picket line. Meanwhile, out-of-town supporters from as far as Michigan and Wisconsin brought donuts and coffee to the striking workers as they picketed in the cold.

Professors in the English Department canceled all classes in solidarity with GEO. Some undergraduates joined the picket when they realized their TAs weren't guaranteed a living wage.

Early on, the strike had more than enough people to form picket lines at every door on each of the targeted buildings. As the day progressed, strikers took lunch breaks at two support camps located on each side of the main campus. Later, the strike consolidated mass pickets around the front doors of the targeted buildings.

To end the day, striking workers joined by supporters marched to the administration offices to deliver fiery speeches countering the university's e-mail smear campaign. The strike will continue until GEO's demands are met.

"We're not ones messing around, the university administration are the ones messing around by not signing a fair contract with us after seven months" said Alison Goebel of the Anthropology Department.

The fightback by GEO comes amid an overall attack on public-sector unions. The recession has made it increasingly difficult for working class students to obtain a higher education. A key issue in the strike is the university's refusal to guarantee tuition waivers for graduate students. The waivers are the only thing that makes postgraduate education affordable for most students--and state officials threatened them with cuts.

"The strike is not just about wages--it's about changes in education, and we as educators have to make a stand," said Yanina Buckowa of the Anthropology Department. "The administration tries to shift the cost to students. We feel that waivers are important enough to strike over."

If GEO can win a fair contract, it will set the bar for other unions on the campus of the University of Illinois.

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