Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] Grad employees' strike victory at U of I
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Comment: Julien Ball
======== GRAD EMPLOYEES' STRIKE VICTORY AT U OF I ============================
Julien Ball, a member of the Graduate Employees Organization at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on how his union struck
November 19, 2009
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
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
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."
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
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
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
>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.
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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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