Smile Politely

Consolidating their gains

On November 16th and 17th, the teaching and graduate assistants (TAs and GAs) of the UIUC Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, carried out the first open-ended strike on the UIUC campus in over thirty years.

The GEO and the University administration had been negotiating since April 21st, and after months of rallies, work-ins, and other demonstrations, GEO members decided on November 6 that the only way to move forward would be to authorize a strike. On November 14, two days after GEO members and allies held demonstrations in Springfield, Champaign, and Chicago, the GEO and administration bargaining teams met for a final negotiation session at Willard Airport.

The negotiations lasted for more than six hours. When bargaining began in April, GEO members agreed to focus on four major “pillars:” a living wage for all graduate employees, improved health and child-care, and contractual protection for tuition waivers. With 300 GEO members both sitting in the negotiating room and demonstrating outside, the two bargaining teams were able to agree to compromises on wages, health care, and child care, but the administration team could only offer the GEO protection for in-state tuition waivers.

Tuition waivers are a central component of public graduate education in the United States; they function as a benefit of employement that allows teaching and graduate assistants to provide cost-effective labor while also producing their own research. Most GEO members recieve out of state tuition waivers, and the contract language proposed by the administration on November 14 would have allowed these waivers to be eliminated or reduced to in-state tuition.

Last winter, the UIUC administration announced a major change in tuition waiver policy; while resistance from faculty and graduate students prevented the change, getting some protection for tuition waivers in the contract was as important to many GEO members as the other major “pillars.” This concern was central to the decision of the GEO strike committee to call a strike. Despite agreements on wages and other major contract issues, tuition waiver security really spoke to what the GEO as an organization is all about: helping to protect the future of public higher education.

The strike was open-ended — that is, in calling the strike the GEO strike committee did not specify an end date — but lasted just one and a half days. Despite the 1,000 GEO members signed up to walk picket lines, GEO leaders weren’t quite sure what to expect on the morning of the 16th. It was raining and cold, but 300 people still gathered in the middle of the Liberal Arts and Sciences quad for a 7:45 a.m. rally to begin the pickets.

Kerry Pimblott, the GEO’s lead negotiator, urged members at the rally “shut this University down.” At least on the main quad, that’s exactly what happened. None of the GEO picketers — up to 700 at one time during the first day — taught classes or did any other assistantship work, and professors cancelled classes in solidarity with the strike.

The GEO pickets — focused on English, the Foreign Languages Building, Gregory Hall, and Davenport Hall — were more than just lines. With considerable help from the GEO drum corps, GEO members chanted, danced, sang, and made their own joyous noise with pots and pans and homemade noise makers. Susan Rogers, graduate student in Library and Information Science, said that “working the lines was hard, but at the same time empowering, inspirational, and an awesome illustration of what can be accomplished when people come together and work passionately for a just cause.”

The work paid off — on November 17th, the second day of the strike, the administration responded to the pressure and gave the GEO contract language providing significantly increased protection for tuition waivers. On November 22nd, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization voted decisively to ratify the tentatative contract agreement between the GEO and the administration, and the contract will now be forwarded to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees for their signatures.

After several months of effort, GEO members have a moment to relax, but will continue to use their new-found organizational strength to continue to push for truly accessible public education. Leighton Christiansen, veteran labor activist and graduate student in Library and Information Science, might put it best: “our strike was about telling the University that it could not continually cut wages or tuition waivers, or allow the quality of education to erode, without a fight. Our victory will serve as inspiration for other groups of education workers across the country, such as the strikers in the University of California system who went out today. We can fight the quality erosion, cost cutting, fee increases, class-size increases, and we can win.”

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