Strike threat wins new contract

April 12, 2010

Brian Napoletano reports on a victory for the graduate employees’ union at UIC.

GRADUATE STUDENT employees at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) won a new contract following a threat by the 1,400-member union to go on strike if its demands, particularly around tuition waivers and differentials, weren’t met by university officials.

The tentative agreement was hammered out during a 13-hour marathon bargaining session that began as supporters of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at UIC rallied on campus on April 5.

The union was able to gain stronger language securing tuition waivers for graduate employees, an increase in the minimum stipend for the next two years, and more money from the university for health insurance.

Another critical issue was tuition differentials—fees amounting to as much as $11,000 a year that aren’t covered by tuition waivers, and that some grad employees therefore have to pay out of their stipends. In the tentative contract, the university agreed to discuss differentials and make more transparent the question of who is made to pay them and under what circumstances.

Graduate and undergraduate students were joined by faculty and union workers for a rally to support the GEO
Graduate and undergraduate students were joined by faculty and union workers for a rally to support the GEO (Ben Seese)

There is no guarantee that UIC will do anything about tuition differentials, but this contract provision represents an important concession by an administration that refused previously to discuss the issue, and creates an opening for the union to organize around this issue for the future.

The fact that the university retreated from its initial demands on all these questions shows that it took the GEO’s strike threat—and the displays of solidarity from students and other unions—seriously.

As the GEO negotiating team met with administrators for the session that produced the tentative deal, more than 200 graduate and undergraduate students, faculty and staff rallied on the UIC campus. Other unions represented at the demonstration were Service Employees International Union Local 73—which covers clerical, maintenance, and technical staff—and UIC Faculty United.

The rally served notice to administrators that GEO members were determined to win their demands and had broad support on campus—and they were ready to strike the next day if UIC refused to retreat.

THE PREVIOUS contract with the GEO at UIC expired in August 2009, and the administration repeatedly stalled negotiations. “They haven't been getting back to us,” Charles Moss, GEO’s interim president, explained. “Then there's the fact that it's taking so long to get back to us when they won't even guarantee waivers.”

Up until the April 5 bargaining session, the administration had taken a tough line—that both tuition waivers and differentials would be left to the discretion of individual departments. This would have been a step backward from the existing policy that at least as a matter of course offered waivers covering the cost of tuition graduate, teaching and research assistants with appointments entailed at least 10 hours of work for the university.

Pointing out that leaving waivers and differentials to the departments would subject grad employees to even greater financial insecurities, the GEO bargaining team rejected the administration’s proposal.

The union had made some progress on other key demands, including more timely appointment notices, more reasonable class sizes and slightly larger subsidies for health insurance. But GEO members maintained that the administration's failure to guarantee tuition waivers and give them any say in the assessment of differentials would have undermined any other benefits in the contract.

“We're not demanding too much,” explained Jayson Anton, a GEO member and chair of the strike committee. “We're demanding respect, and basically the ability to attend this University.”

The April 5 demonstration was designed to underline the fact that the GEO was giving administrators two options: begin negotiating with the union in good faith, or face a strike the next day.

The decision to authorize a walkout wasn’t taken lightly—either because of the question of lost pay or the effects of a strike for undergraduate students. “A lot of people would rather not [strike],” Moss said. “We want to teach. We'd rather they just give us the respect we deserve and the waivers we need and have received in the past.”

UIC’s Undergraduate Student Government backed the GEO's position prior to the April 5 protest when it passed a resolution calling on the administration to settle on a contract that included “lowered tuition differentials, guaranteed tuition waivers, and affordable and accessible health care benefits.”

The Graduate Student Council also expressed its support for the GEO in February. Faculty, members of SEIU Local 73 and undergraduate sympathizers all indicated that they would stand with the graduate employees if Monday's negotiations stalemated and compelled them to strike.

This show of unity—coupled with a two-day strike last November at the downstate University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) campus, as well as recent demonstrations against cuts and tuition hikes nationwide—appears to have convinced the administration to take the GEO's demands seriously.

While they still hope to gain more say in the assessment of tuition differentials and to increase union membership before future contract negotiations begin, the GEO recognized Monday's agreement as an important victory for the union. Many hope this win will bolster the confidence of SEIU Local 73's bargaining team during its negotiations, underway with administrators now. The GEO contract victory should also boost faculty organizing efforts and undergraduate students' ongoing struggle against tuition increases.

At many of the country’s public universities, like at UIC, administrators have used the economic crisis to justify these budget cuts and try to intimidate faculty and staff into going along with even more concessions. The example of the GEO—both at UIUC and now at UIC—and the solidarity its members got from faculty, staff and undergraduate students shows that it’s possible to fight these attacks on education and win.

Jayson Anton contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives