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Urbana-Champaign Graduate Employees' Organization authorizes strike

By staff |
November 10, 2009
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Urbana-Champaign, IL - On Nov. 9, the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) announced the results of its strike authorization vote.

Over the course of a three-day vote, an overwhelming 92% of participating GEO members chose to authorize a strike against the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. With the vote, GEO members have given the strike committee of the GEO a clear mandate to call a strike at any time. The Graduate Employees' Organization, American Federation of Teachers/Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300, AFL-CIO, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a labor union representing all teaching and graduate assistants on the UIUC campus. With over 2600 graduate employees represented in the bargaining unit, the GEO is one of the largest higher education union locals in the United States.

The GEO has been negotiating with UIUC administrators for over six months. The GEO seeks a contract that will set the minimum salary for a 50% nine-month appointment at the university's estimate of a living wage for a graduate student in Urbana-Champaign and protect tuition waivers for teaching and graduate assistants. While the GEO presented the administration with a full contract proposal on the first day of negotiations, the UIUC administration declined to offer a counterproposal until Aug. 11, just four days before the GEO's previous contract expired.

The UIUC administration's initial contract proposal sought to freeze GEO wages for three years, reserve the right to furlough and lay off graduate employees in good standing and to count 'in-kind' compensation such as housing or meal vouchers toward the minimum salary mandated in the contract.

The GEO understands that the state of Illinois is in dire economic straits, but as university administrators pointed out in their fiscal year 2010 budget request, this is the result of long-standing deficiencies in state level budget prioritization and not a sudden result of the recent economic recession.

Instead of championing the university's historic land grant mission, UIUC administrators have embraced the national tendency toward the corporatization of the public higher education system. Their consequent failure to secure adequate state funding leaves the social science, humanities and fine arts especially vulnerable. Worse, it jeopardizes access to higher education for many who have the capacity and desire, but not the financial resources to attend the university. If increased state funding is also necessary to providing at least a living wage for all campus employees, then the GEO expects the UIUC administration to forcefully make that case to the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, other state legislators and the governor.

Instead of advocating on the behalf of students and workers, administrators were granting costly favors to state politicians. The former Chancellor diverted $450,000 of discretionary funds to provide jobs and scholarships for politically well-connected but undeserving student applicants.

Hundreds of GEO members have participated in three major rallies. GEO members have also lobbied the Illinois House of Representatives Higher Education Appropriations Committee, spoken with state legislators from Champaign, actively informed campus community members about the issues and maintained a constant presence in Urbana-Champaign print, radio and television media. The Illinois Student Senate has passed two resolutions in support of the GEO and the decision to authorize a strike and GEO supporters in the faculty senate are working to pass a similar resolution. GEO members and allies will hold a rally at the University of Illinois Board of Trustees Meeting in Springfield, IL on Nov. 12.

As with any labor negotiation, however, the most effective pressure has been the threat of a strike. Only after GEO members at a general membership meeting voted unanimously to file an 'intent to strike' notice did the university administration offer their first compromise proposals. Accordingly, the Coordinating Committee and Steward’s Council of the GEO voted unanimously to hold a strike authorization vote from Nov. 4-6.

By voting to authorize a strike, GEO members have taken a vital step in holding the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign administration accountable to its stated commitment to excellence in research and undergraduate education.