GEO prepares for a strike

Daniel Werst and Damian Reyes Rodriguez report on a labor showdown on campus.

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization at UIUC during their 2009 strike (Chris Tuck)Members of the Graduate Employees Organization at UIUC during their 2009 strike (Chris Tuck)

ON NOVEMBER 16, as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was heading into Thanksgiving break, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the union of more than 2,400 teaching assistants and graduate workers, announced that 86.7 percent of voting members had said "yes" to authorizing a strike.

Following the vote, the GEO formed a strike committee, which can call a strike at any time deemed necessary to win an acceptable contract.

The graduate employees, who lead more than 20 percent of the undergraduate courses, are fighting back against repeated attempts by the university administration to cut tuition waivers. Without these waivers, graduate students would have to pay to pursue advanced degrees, while also teaching, grading and generally making the university run.

The GEO went on strike in 2009 with more than 1,000 graduate employees walking out. After two days of disruption, teaching assistants forced the administration to sign a three-year contract with language guaranteeing tuition waivers. In a quiet year for the U.S. labor movement, the GEO strike was one of only five strikes of over 1,000 workers nationwide.

However, shortly after this victory, the administration began cutting waivers and charging partial tuition for some graduate employees from out of state in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. This was ruled a clear contract violation by a state labor arbitrator. Just recently, on November 15, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board also ruled in effect that the administration had been stealing from graduate workers by charging them tuition in violation of the contract.

Tuition waivers are not the only issue at stake, though they are the key demand that is leading toward a possible strike. The GEO is also pushing for higher stipends, pointing out that one-third of its members make only the minimum salary of $14,820, even though the administration itself has estimated a living wage for single people during nine months of the year in Champaign-Urbana to be $16,926.

The discrepancy reveals the pressure to exploit graduate employees. While state universities are supposed to serve a general public interest, they are run more and more like businesses. This was illustrated by a university lawyer who, according to GEO officials, told them in a meeting that the administration wants to "generate revenue" by cutting tuition waivers.

Like many other public universities, the University of Illinois has raised its undergraduate tuition steeply and repeatedly--including a 6.9 percent increase in 2011 and a 4.8 percent increase in 2012. The school is less and less supported by public funding, and it is becoming more difficult for working-class and low-income students, and especially students of color, to attend.

Largely by charging more tuition for incoming undergrads, the Board of Trustees recently raised the university┬╣s operating budget by 3.7 percent. Yet the administration continues to do its utmost to avoid using this money to raise wages for the university┬╣s lowest-paid employees.

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THE DAY before the GEO announced the result of the strike authorization vote, the university's provost sent out a mass e-mail to graduate students, slandering the union and arguing that graduate employees had no reason to complain, since the average salary was slightly over their living wage estimate.

The GEO pointed out that this is of little help to the many teaching assistants making significantly less. It is particularly insulting to those graduate employees raising children while pursuing advanced studies.

Moreover, all of the union's members making more than the current minimum accepted a pay freeze over the three years of the last contract in exchange for a 10 percent raise for the lowest-paid members. This showed the union's commitment to solidarity, but it also meant that the administration imposed a pay cut through inflation on most teaching assistants.

The GEO has also condemned the administration for pushing in negotiations for most of its members to be placed under the so-called "campus wage program," a system which allows administrators to set wages at will. Other campus workers, including the building service and food service workers, have been pushed to accept this program. However, it is widely viewed as a politely named way of avoiding collective bargaining on wages.

In 2011, the building and food service workers had to push to within hours of a strike as they fought to get a wage increase of 2.75 percent. Meanwhile, the university's new chancellor is making over $500,000 a year, and the provost who dismissed the graduate employees' grievances is himself getting $430,000!

The GEO's last scheduled negotiation session will be on November 28. All indications are that if the administration does not agree to guarantee tuition waivers, the union will strike.

During the negotiation process, the GEO has worked to build both member activity and solidarity among other campus workers and undergraduates. Members were mobilized in department meetings and public "work-ins" to demand an acceptable contract. And when the strike authorization vote was held, it was taken over four days with several polling places and an option to vote online in order to maximize participation.

The week before the vote was taken, the union also organized a militant rally of over 200 members and supporters that led into a march down the main quad. The speakers included Aaron Ammons, an activist involved in fighting police brutality and a university janitor and member of Service Employees International Union, who declared that if workers aren't getting "a big enough piece of the cake," they have the power to "turn off the oven and make sure no more cakes get made" until their demands are met.

Before the last scheduled negotiations, both the Campus Faculty Association, which has strongly supported graduate employees, and undergraduate students in the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance will be working to build solidarity.

The GEO is using its next scheduled negotiation session as an opportunity to call a demonstration, focus pressure on the administration, and spread information about the contract fight. In September, the GEO Solidarity Committee sent several members to support the striking Chicago teachers. Now they may have their own major struggle.

Whether at the bargaining table or by shutting down the university, the graduate workers have made clear that they intend to stop the attack on their jobs and their education.