Solidarity Statement for GEO at UIUC

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We, Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago, support the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) in their effort to bargain a fair contract with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Graduate employees at UIUC have been without a contract since August 2017 and have been in negotiations since March 2017. We urge Provost Cangellaris to accept the GEO’s proposals for a new collective bargaining agreement which preserves graduate employees’ tuition waivers, pays them a living wage, and provides them and their dependents with affordable, accessible healthcare and childcare resources.

Graduate employees perform essential work for UIUC as Teaching and Graduate Assistants. At some point, every undergraduate student is taught by a graduate instructor, and over 2,500 graduate workers on this campus provide invaluable labor. In fact, Illinois ranks 6th in the country among universities where graduate employees teach the most classes. Grad employees make Illinois work.

UIUC administration is attempting to cut the tuition waivers that are an essential part of grad workers’ compensation. They insist on removing protections for tuition waivers that GEO won in 2009, and fought to keep in 2012. They want to give themselves “authority to waive tuition” and the “right to determine and modify tuition waivers for each graduate program,” enabling them to not only cut tuition waivers, but to replace waiver-generating appointments with hourly graduate positions not covered by GEO’s contract. They’ve also recently revealed a plan to legally prevent GEO from striking over tuition waivers, a drastic measure that shows their intent to break the union: by replacing graduate appointments covered by GEO’s contract, the administration would have the power to erode and ultimately eliminate GEO’s bargaining unit.

On top of this, UIUC administration refuses to pay graduate workers a living wage, and refuses to provide health care and child care resources for those with dependents. Teaching and Graduate Assistants making the minimum salary earn about $6,000 less than the University’s own published cost of living and most have not received a raise in five years. The administration is also refusing to provide healthcare coverage for dependents of graduate workers, or a childcare subsidy for graduate worker parents. Without these important benefits, graduate workers will not have financial stability and graduate school will not be equally accessible to everyone.

For these reasons, the GEO has declared that it will strike on February 26th to protect both tuition waivers and its survival.

GSU urges Provost Cangellaris and the University bargaining team to work with GEO to provide graduate employees with a fair contract. If the Graduate Employees’ Organization is forced to strike, we understand that this drastic measure signals the University administration’s unwillingness to resolve negotiations at the bargaining table. GSU will support actions deemed necessary by GEO to protect themselves, undergraduates, and the integrity and quality of education at the University of Illinois. All graduate employees, students, and workers deserve better living, learning, and working conditions.

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A Message on Faculty – Graduate Employee Relationships by Professor Robert Johnston and Dr. Tom Alter

In a week, University of Chicago graduate employees will vote whether to unionize. Giving more power to grad workers frightens a few faculty members and most administrators, who claim that unions disrupt the harmonious relationship between faculty and their students. Happily, we can attest that graduate student unions do not harm the advisor/advisee relationship.

The two of us, Robert Johnston and Tom Alter, had a positive advisor/advisee relationship throughout Tom’s doctoral studies in History at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), which has had a grad union since 2004. Unionism was part of our relationship from the beginning. Tom joined the Graduate Employee Organization as soon as he arrived on campus. By the end of Tom’s first year, he had become a department steward, and he was active in campus organizing and contract negotiations.

Tom’s unionism did not interfere with our pedagogical relationship. Indeed, we’ve never heard of a case where any faculty member or graduate student at UIC expressed any concern about the union harming collegial and mentoring relationships. The same is true for Yale, where Robert taught for nine years. Unionized graduate assistants and faculty continued to collaborate as before.

Of course, some UofC faculty make claims to the contrary. Economics professor Derek Neal worried that with a union “faculty would no longer see their teaching assistants as mentees and future peers.” Dean David Nirenberg fretted that a union would reduce all collaboration to “an economic calculus.” Such dire predictions, crucially, never come with any factual evidentiary support.

Truth to tell, the situation is quite the opposite. Grad unions provide security, respect, and appropriate rules, allowing master’s and doctoral students to flourish. Union work rule are not dictated by national unions but formulated by graduate students themselves, then negotiated with the administration. They simply do not impinge on areas related to mentorship. This finding has been borne out in peer-reviewed research that examined dozens of universities with grad unions.

A union means having a democratic voice at the table when decisions are made affecting your work. It can profoundly improve the working conditions of grads, and it can also bolster the relationship that you have with your advisor or PI. Don’t be afraid to Vote YES!

–Tom Alter, Lecturer in History, Texas State (UIC Ph.D. 2016) and Robert Johnston, Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago (Tom’s advisor)