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UIC Graduate Employees Organization scores victory

By Joe Iosbaker |
April 8, 2010
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Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) rally at University of Illinois at Chicago
Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) rally at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Ben Seese)

On April 5, the members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) prepared for a strike. Their bargaining committee went in for a last-ditch session with a federal mediator and the team from management. After 13 hours at the table, GEO scored a significant victory, emerging with a tentative agreement that protects tuition waivers and increases job security. They also won two years of raises to their minimum stipends and an increase in the university’s contribution for health insurance.

Fight Back! News caught up with Gina Gemmel, communications officer for the GEO.

Fight Back!: Why was the GEO preparing to strike?

Gina Gemmel: We were preparing to strike because the UIC administration had not guaranteed tuition waivers for graduate employees. The proposal we had received from them would have allowed individual departments to set tuition waiver policy, which would open up the possibility of departments granting only partial waivers or waivers only to certain types of students. We wanted to ensure that every graduate employee currently receiving a waiver would continue to receive one so they would be able to finish their degrees at UIC.

We were also concerned about skyrocketing tuition differential fees. These fees vary in amount, in some cases reaching up to $11,000 per year. We knew that a big, visible action like a strike was one of the best ways to make the university hear our voices.

Fight Back!: What had been done to prepare for the strike?

Gemmel: Throughout the year, the GEO has held events to both send a message to the administration about the issues we care about and to get our membership involved in the fight. Two of our biggest events were a work-in on the ground floor of University Hall in December and a rally with SEIU members and other members of the UIC community in January.

In order to prepare concretely for the strike, the GEO spent time visiting grad students in departments all over campus to explain the issues and listen to their thoughts on a potential strike. We prepared logistically with picket line schedules and by training GEO members to be picket line captains. Finally, we made our intention to strike if we were not able to settle our contract in mediation known to the campus community through our “Ready to Strike” posters and buttons, with which our membership flooded the UIC campus.

Fight Back!: What are the key parts of the agreement?

Gemmel: The key parts of the agreement are the guarantee of our tuition waivers and language that will allow for more transparency in tuition differential policy. We now have a guarantee that graduate employees will not be surprised by any reductions or cuts to their existing tuition waiver benefits, without which, in most cases, students would not be able to afford graduate study. We have also received a guarantee in our contract that the university will discuss tuition differential fees with the GEO, answering questions that have previously been ignored, such as where the money from these fees goes and who exactly determines their implementation and increases.

Other important agreements included guarantees that graduate employees would be paid on time, greater job security through stronger language regarding appointment and re-appointment criteria, a 2% increase to the minimum stipend in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2010 academic years, and an increase in the university contribution to health care costs from $100 to $250 per year.

Fight Back!: What are the lessons for the other workers on campus?

Gemmel: The biggest lesson from our year-long fight for a fair contract is that the most powerful tool we have to make sure workers are protected is collective action. The most movement we saw at the bargaining table happened in the mediation session after the university received our intent to strike notice, and of course, we were able to get our contract settled after our massive rally outside the site of mediation last Monday. When the university knows that we can collectively act to disrupt normal operations, they are compelled to listen.

The GEO’s slogan is “UIC works because we do,” and this slogan can really be applied to workers all over campus. When we show the administration how essential we are to the success of UIC, they must listen.