GEO draws the line

Earlier this month, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike.

The university administration had balked at a contract resolution for months, despite more than 20 bargaining sessions. According to GEO members, the administration had avoiding the main issue on the table--tuition waivers for graduate employee--and stalled by, among other things, trying to avoid language on health care benefits for same-sex domestic partners (or, in fact, domestic partners of any sexual orientation). For many graduate students, health care benefits, wages and tuition waivers are what allow them to attend the university.

On November 27, the GEO announced that a tentative agreement had been reached with the administration. In an interview conducted before that announcement, Stephanie Seawell, a GEO spokesperson, spoke to Damian Reyes Rodriguez about the issues at stake in the strike.

GEO employees hold a press conference before a 2009 strikeGEO employees hold a press conference before a 2009 strike

WHAT LED to the strike authorization vote?

THE BIGGEST issue that we still have on the table is this issue of tuition waivers, which is what we went on strike for in 2009. So we want to keep the language that we have in the contract. We like the language that we have. We think it is strong language. It's been upheld by multiple parties including a neutral arbitrator and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

The administration wants to change the language. It took more than 20 meetings for them to even give us anything written down, and what they gave us weakens the language considerably from what we have now.

ONE OF the reasons that the university gives for not keeping the language is that they need some sort of financial flexibility. How do you respond to this?

WHAT THEY are asking for with this "financial flexibility" is the ability to charge graduate employees more money for working at the University of Illinois. They have already been doing this in the College of Fine and Applied Arts: They have been charging graduate students who have enrolled in the past three years, and some students who were already on campus, a little bit more than a thousand dollars a year in tuition; money that I don't pay as a TA [teaching assistant] in history.

It's not right. It's a violation of our contract, and we don't want to expand their ability to do that to more departments.

THE MEMBERSHIP involved voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike. What's the mood among members? Is it optimistic? Do you think that you might be able to avoid the strike?

I HOPE so. I hope that the strike vote lets the administration know we are serious. But the members expect that there is going to be real dialogue about tuition waivers. There is no reason that this had to take 23 meetings to get something in writing from them. There is no reason that this conversation had to drag on this long. The administration keeps sending out announcements that say that this isn't going to affect graduate students on campus.

First of all, we also care about new graduate students. Second of all, our contract starts in the fall. So when they are talking about new students, this would include everyone who is currently a first year student. But it's also really clear from what they are doing already in the Fine and Applied Arts that it will impact individuals who are already continuing students, for lots of different reasons. We see this as our central issue. We took a survey. 1,200 people responded, and 95 percent said tuition waivers is their issue.

Knowing that, it still took the administration more than 20 meetings to start talking about tuition waivers. That's a problem, and hopefully in the next few days, it's a something that we can correct.

The GEO wants to bargain. The administration's latest proposal is essentially that they get to do what they want to do. That's not contract negotiations.

YOU SAID that there have been over 20 bargaining sessions. How many sessions are left?

RIGHT NOW, we have two scheduled with the federal mediator on Monday and Tuesday [November 26th and 27th]. We had wanted to meet over Thanksgiving break. The administration was maybe a little bit too busy.

The mediator gave us 20 days that he could meet: the administration picked four, we picked all of them. So, you know, that's how that goes. We are volunteers and they are getting paid for it.

So we have those two scheduled. That doesn't mean that we can't schedule more. Basically, these are the dates that the mediator gave us. So we'll have to go back to him and ask for his next set of dates.

So we hope we get some stuff done on Monday and Tuesday, [in four-hour sessions] each day. Besides tuition waivers, we still have wages on the table. We still have health-care on the table. So there is a lot of work to do in those two days.

WHAT WAS your role in the last strike in the fall of 2009?

I WAS the treasurer of the GEO at the time, which meant that I was on the strike committee. I was also on the bargaining team. So my role was crazy!

IF THE university administration went through a similar process three years ago and lost, why do you think they are sticking to their position given that there is already a precedent of what the GEO is able and willing to do?

They flat out told us why in a meeting with the chancellor. One of their council lawyers, said in a meeting with the Chancellor on March 2, "You have to understand. We want to generate revenue."

That's what he said, and we do understand that--because we are the ones who would be paying the revenue. Tuition waivers are part of our compensation and we are not willing to give up our compensation rights that we already have in the contract. And that's what they are asking us to do.

DO YOU see this behavior as something specific to the university of Illinois or is this a larger trend nationally?

I THINK that this specific case is unique to the University of Illinois, but I do think it's part of a larger trend nationally where teaching labor becomes more and more contingent, more and more precarious, and the quality of education goes down.

What is going on here is part of a pretty alarming trend, where the percentage of the budget that goes to instruction is going down, while the percentage that goes to the administration is going up. And there are more students on campus. That means more undergrad students and less teachers.

It impacts the quality of education. If they do this, there will be less quality graduate students. That again is going to impact the quality of education.

HOW IS a strike, if it happens, going to affect other grad employees and other unions on campus?

BASICALLY, ONLY the GEO can go on strike. Research assistants aren't in our bargaining unit. They can support us. They could vote for the strike and I know a bunch of them did. They can walk the line. But they are not allowed to just not go to work, because they are not protected under the contract.

Other unions on campus have been really supportive of us. We have been doing joint rallies. We meet a lot together. They can't go on strike when we go on strike. They have stuff in their contract that doesn't allow that. But they are going to walk the lines with us if we go out. They are going to be supportive of us. They've already asked us what they can do to help. And we'll make sure that if we do have to go on strike, we'll find a way to let the public know that even if they have to go into a building, because that is their contractual obligation, that they still stand with us (arm bands or something like that).

IN TERMS of logistics, do you have a strike fund, and can other unions send solidarity funds?

WE HAVE a strike fund and it's good. If people go to UIGEO.org, there is an e-mail with which they can contact us. Look under officers and click on "treasurer."

We've already gotten some donations, but more would be great. We hope we don't have to go on strike, but if we do, it can get expensive. So that would be wonderful.

WHAT CAN grad employees and other people around the country do to support the GEO?

THE BIGGEST thing is our petition. When you sign the petition it also sends an e-mail to the Board of Trustees, and just let people know your perspective.

There is text that we have, but there is a space where you can write, "Hey I'm an alumni, hey I'm an undergrad, hey this concerns me." And I think they will start listening, because I know the petition [target] was at right about 2,000 people, but we would like to get it even higher, because this impacts a lot of different people.

Also, we are having a big teach-in at the University of Illinois Student Union on Monday November 26 starting at 9 a.m., going throughout the day. We are going to have stuff for undergrads: tutoring, answering questions about a potential strike. There is a Facebook event about it.

WOULD YOU have any specific suggestions or advice for other graduate unions around the country or other graduate associations looking to become a union right now?

PAY ATTENTION to what is happening here, because if it can happen here it could be coming soon to a university near you.

The other thing that I would say is to keep fighting for public education wherever you are. I think the struggles are particular to each campus, but there is this common issue of trying to corporatize and commodify public education, to make everything be about money and the bottom line. And what doesn't always seem like it is being put into that equation is the education part.

So for other grads who are thinking about unionizing--I mean, the only reason we could fight back on this is because we have a union. If we didn't have a union in 2009, they would have been able to just do this across the board. The only way that we have been able to fight back in the Fine and Applied Arts is because we have a union and a contract, both of which we have a legal right to. They are trying to get rid of that, and we are trying to keep it.

This is a public university. We take that really seriously at the GEO. We take teaching seriously. We take access to education seriously. So we don't see this as just a contract fight. We see this as a part of a broader struggle across the United States, with the stuff that has been going on in California, and in Chicago with the K-12 teachers.

At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand and say "Public education matters!"