Vote yes, and keep organizing

November 20, 2009

Leighton Christiansen, a graduate assistant in the School of Library and Information Science at University of Illinois and a steward in the Graduate Employees Organization, looks at the contract offer his union won after a two-day strike.

NOW THAT University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) graduate employees have suspended our historic strike, we face an important decision: how to vote on the tentative agreement. I would encourage fellow Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) members to vote "yes"--with the understanding that the fight is not over, and there is much organizing ahead.

The tentative agreement includes an increase in the university's share of the student health fee, a 10 percent increase in wages for the lowest-paid graduate employees, and two more weeks of parental leave (unpaid, unfortunately).

The highlight of the contract for many members is that we now have language that makes our tuition waivers a right of employment. Any detrimental changes to a teaching or graduate assistantship is now grievable, whereas before it was just a favor granted by the Board of Trustees.

The board floated ideas on changing or dropping tuition waivers in the spring as a cost-cutting measure. Without tuition waivers, many UIUC grad employees would not be able to afford to work and go to school.

Striking members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Striking members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Chris Tuck)

It has to be said that we didn't get everything we wanted in this contract. While the wages for the lowest paid will increase, the increase will leave them far below the living wage goal we set in our initial offers.

Further, by going along with the campus-wide wage program offered by UIUC to all bargaining units, we effectively agreed to a 0 percent cost-of-living adjustment for the three years of the deal. In theory, we could get a raise, but during negotiations, the administration bargaining team said that the campus wage program would be 0 percent for the next three years.

So it's true that we didn't do so well on the financials. But we must also put this contract in context. Using the recession as what they thought to be a bullet-proof argument, university administrators came at us with a union-busting contract: attacks on our grievance procedure, the right to furlough us, and a scope clause that would hamstring future fightbacks.

Because of our organizing zeal and strike power, the UIUC bargaining team had to pull each of these demands off of the table.

In the last few months, the GEO reached out and organized hundreds of new members. We now have the greatest percentage of our bargaining unit signed up as members that the union has ever had. We need to use this energy to consolidate the departments where we are strong, and organize departments where we are weak or unrepresented. And we need to join with other campus unions to fight for a living wage for all workers at UIUC.

While we didn't get everything we wanted in the contract, we said we would strike until we got a tuition waiver guarantee in our contract. In the face of the university's arrogance and campaign of lies--and two days of cold rain--we stood strong, and we won our key demand.

Let our victory slogan be: 'We Did Not Waiver!'

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