University of Illinois Graduate Student Employees Go on Strike

Dawn Rhodes, February 26, 2018, Chicago Tribune

University of Illinois graduate student workers went on strike Monday after last-minute negotiations over the weekend failed to end a protracted contract dispute that has lasted nearly a year.

Leaders of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, representing around 2,700 graduate and teaching assistants on the Urbana-Champaign campus, set up picket lines at buildings around the Main Quad starting at 8 a.m. Hundreds of union members and supporters then gathered for a boisterous rally in front of Foellinger Auditorium and marched around the quad before returning to the picket lines for the afternoonUnion members have pledged to strike indefinitely until they receive a satisfactory contract, GEO Co-president Gus Wood said.

Some students lounging on the quad lawn on the unseasonably warm day said they had classes canceled Monday and some had already been told classes would not be held Tuesday. Other students said their classes went on as normal but that office hours for their instructors had been reduced.

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the administration confirmed 53 people withheld their work, 66 classes were moved to different locations to avoid picket lines and 27 classes were canceled.

This is the first strike the union for graduate and teaching assistants has staged since 2009, Wood said. The union has been without a contract since August. The union and administration have met for two dozen bargaining sessions and 14 mediation sessions since March 2017, including two on Friday and Sunday, to no avail.

“This is the only way we can show this administration that the university works because we do,” said Jennifer Jones, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in biology.

A main point of contention is the role of tuition waivers for graduate students.

The previous union contract, which lasted from August 2012 to August 2017, stipulated that qualifying graduate and teaching assistants would not have tuition waivers reduced as long as they remained in good academic standing and made acceptable progress toward their degrees.

Graduate student workers strike on the Main Quad at the University of Illinois on Feb. 26, 2018.

(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

The union wants to maintain that provision as is. The university wants to be able to adjust the tuition waiver program for budgetary and programming reasons in the future, though school leaders say any such changes would not affect the waiver terms in place for students already enrolled.

Union leaders argue the university’s proposal would essentially force graduate students to pay more to continue their studies, which many students describe as untenable. About 69 percent of union members have graduate and teaching assistant programs and receive some form of tuition waivers, according to the university’s human resources website. Union leaders also say accepting the university’s terms may secure their own tuition waiver protections but it would not guarantee them for future graduate students.

“We should not abandon our future graduate students,” Alvaro Cruz, a third-year doctoral candidate in quantitative psychology, said at the rally. “Our working conditions are your learning conditions. Enough is enough. Respect the the graduate workers who contribute so much to the education of this educational institution.”

The two sides also have not reached an agreement on issues such as pay raises and child care.

Urbana-Champaign Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in a statement Sunday that university leadership was “extremely disappointed” about the decision to strike and that the university made significant efforts to meet many of the union’s demands, including tuition waivers, wages and higher coverage on health insurance premiums.

Kaler said the administration’s bargaining team had been willing to negotiate all night Sunday, if needed, but that the union’s team decided to leave.

“We’ve listened to the concerns of the GEO,” Cangellaris said. “We’ve made generous and serious proposals that address those concerns. We are ready to resume the bargaining process and we hope we will reach an agreement that ends the strike as quickly as possible.”

Department leadership will determine how to reschedule or make up missed class sessions during the strike.

“We have made significant progress toward a final agreement, and our goals are not separate or different here,” Cangellaris said. “We want to ensure Illinois’ sustainable excellence in graduate education and research by remaining competitive in attracting the most talented, hardworking and brightest graduate students in the world.”

The strike comes as graduate students around the country have become increasingly assertive in demanding more favorable benefits. Such unions are common at public universities, but a major decision by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 opened the door for unionization at private universities.

Among those organizing at private universities were groups at University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago, which voted to unionize in 2017.

As the strike at the University of Illinois began Monday, Wood, the union co-president, marched throughout the quad with a bullhorn, cheering on the picketers and urging passing students to support the union members in their efforts. Shuttle bus drivers passing by on Wright Street honked their horns and held up fists to show support for the union members.

Chris Anderson, a doctoral candidate in medieval history, said one of his main motivations in the strike was fighting for better health insurance. Anderson, 33, said he has a chronic disease that has hospitalized him twice this year. His insurance as a graduate instructor would mean paying about half his salary toward medical costs.

Anderson said his wife works as a researcher on campus and he qualifies for the more generous faculty insurance rates as a spouse. Otherwise, he would not be able to afford his medical treatment, he said.

“If you are unlucky enough to get sick, it just throws everything off,” Anderson said. “It could wreck you. We get paid nine months out of the year and budget for 12 months. There’s no room to live comfortably.”

The union is seeking 8 percent boosts to minimum assistantship salaries plus 4 percent annual raises over the life of the contract. The administration has proposed a 4 percent raise in the first year and 1.5 percent increases in the remaining years of a five-year contract, according to the university’s human resources department website. Reappointed graduate employees would receive a 3 percent raise in the first year.

Union members also are seeking a monthly child care subsidy for parents. The university is not proposing any contractual terms for child care coverage.

“I want to do right by my students,” said Alyssa Parsons, a teaching assistant in the human development and family services department. “We realize that their lives are being affected right now. But our lives are being disrupted every day and it’s invisible to them.”

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