Grad employees’ strike victory at U of I

November 19, 2009

Julien Ball, a member of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on how his union struck and won.

WITH THE chant "The workers united will never be defeated," some 500 jubilant members and supporters of Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), AFT/IFT Local 6300, held a rally November 17 in front of Foellinger Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as leaders of the local announced that the administration had agreed to contract language protecting tuition waivers.

Later that evening, a mass membership meeting of more than 450 members of the GEO voted unanimously to accept the contract proposal, and the strike committee met that night and decided to suspend the union's two-day-old strike.

Members of the GEO, which represents teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs) on campus, had walked out over the university's refusal to agree to language protecting the union's right to bargain the impact of any changes to tuition waivers for out-of-state and international students.

"We knew that in this economic climate, we would have to strike to win anything at all at the bargaining table," Kerry Pimblott, a graduate student in history and member of the union's bargaining team, told the crowd at Foellinger Hall. "It was the pressure coming from all of you that made what we did possible."

Graduate Employees Organization and their supporters march on the first day of the strike
Graduate Employees Organization and their supporters march on the first day of the strike (Chris Tuck)

Despite the fact that many graduate students depend on tuition waivers to be able to afford to attend the University of Illinois, administrators had refused to guarantee them in a contract, leading members to walk off the job.

TAs teach 23 percent of classes on campus yet receive poverty wages. Meanwhile, disgraced former Chancellor Richard Herman and former university President B. Joseph White--who were forced to resign this fall over a scandal involving the admission of under-qualified but politically connected applicants--still draw a salary of more than $600,000 between them, because of the golden parachutes they received from the university.

The GEO's contract had expired on August 11, and it was only months of rallies and pressure--and finally the strike authorization vote and two-day strike--that forced the university to drop its most regressive proposals.

The university initially proposed an across-the-board wage freeze, refused any contract language protecting employees against unlimited furloughs, and tried to impose a "scope of agreement" clause that would have prevented the GEO from re-opening bargaining in the event of a change in employment conditions.

Last week, after the strike authorization vote, and after hundreds of members packed the bargaining room over the weekend, the university withdrew almost all of these proposed attacks. However, the administration still refused to guarantee tuition waivers, the issue that led to the strike.

In the days leading up to the strike, interim Provost and Chancellor Robert Easter sent a number of misleading and threatening e-mail messages about the GEO. In a November 12 e-mail sent to a list that goes to the entire university community, he announced that "colleges and departments have been planning for the possibility of a strike and will ensure that teaching and learning continue."

Picketers stood strong, however, with more than 1,000 people braving to cold rain to take part in union actions. Meanwhile, an undergraduate solidarity committee formed in the weeks leading up to the strike and drew 35 to 40 people to planning meetings. Members of student groups like La Colectiva, MEcHA, Equality, Campus AntiWar Network, Amnesty International and the International Socialist Organization joined the picket lines. Many professors cancelled classes or moved them off campus, and the entire English department was shut down. Introductory psychology classes with hundreds of students were cancelled, and business generally did not go on as usual.

Meanwhile, the strikers enjoyed support from other union workers--UPS drivers refused to cross picket lines to make deliveries, and members of graduate student unions from the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Chicago drove for hours to support the strike.

As it became clear that the strike was having an impact, Easter began to change his tune. In another e-mail to the entire campus on November 16, he wrote:

Graduate students with assistantships will not have their tuition waivers 
reduced while they hold qualifying assistantships, are in good academic standing and are making proper progress toward graduation in the program in which they began. This commitment is consistent with our longstanding and ongoing University practice.

This language left the administration with little wiggle room and, with the backing of the hundreds of GEO members still on the picket line, allowed the bargaining team to force the university to insert this language almost verbatim into a side letter to the contract.

THE CONTRACT the GEO will be voting to ratify undoubtedly represents a victory, as we were able to defend what we have. The university also was forced to make a few concessions, including the granting of two weeks of unpaid parental leave and an increase in the university's contributions to health care premiums, reaching 75 percent in the third year of the contract.

However, there's still a lot left to fight for in the future. Members of the GEO still don't receive a living wage, defined as more than $16,000 over a nine-month period by the university's own figures. While the lowest-paid TAs won a 10 percent raise over the three-year life of the contract, raising their meager annual salaries from $13,430 to $14,820, most TAs and GAs will be forced to accept a wage freeze over three years.

Nevertheless, the contract gives us a foundation to fight for more in future negotiations. During the strike, morale was high, and the solidarity was palpable. Members of the union who had never been on a picket line before were chanting energetically and began to feel their own power to shut down the University of Illinois campus. Record numbers turned out to union rallies, and to the recent General Membership Meeting.

As Leighton Christiansen, a steward in the Graduate School of Library Science and a member of the strike committee said, "People were joining [the union] on the picket line. We were still signing up members at the November 17 meeting before we suspended the strike. This mass of new members has given the union a needed shot of new blood and energy. Hundreds of members were on the picket lines each hour."

With continuing budget cuts and attacks on public education on the horizon, that kind of energy, solidarity and organization will be necessary to make gains in the future.

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