Grads strike: Because billions for building but nothing for teaching doesn’t add up

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Graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Chicago have been on strike since March 19, demanding that administrators respect their work and show they value academics as much as they value brand-new construction on campus. The strike comes after a year of stalled negotiations and the news that, while the university is refusing to raise grad employees’ pay, it is investing $1 billion in nearly a dozen new buildings, a new soccer stadium, a skating rink and other campus renovations.

University of Illinois/Chicago grad employees

“Right now, UIC is doing better than ever,” says Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC Graduate Employees Organization. “As UIC now invests a billion dollars in new buildings, we are questioning why there is no similar plan to invest in us, the educators who will do the teaching inside those buildings,” he wrote in a recent Chicago Tribune editorial.

Unlike most public universities in Illinois, where funding plummeted and enrollments dropped during a two-year state budget standoff, UIC has been thriving. But administrators are not sharing the wealth, and have refused to grant GEO members decent raises, fee waivers and increased job stability. Respect for graduate workers is sorely lacking, and they are frequently treated as second-class citizens despite the professionalism they bring to their work.

“The administration often talks to us like we’re children, even though we’re mostly in our late 20s to early 40s and many of our members have families they’re trying to support,” says Schuhrke, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in history.

“I am the lead instructor for my sociology course, having essentially the same responsibilities as a professor, yet I am paid the campus minimum wage,” says GEO member Emily Hallgren. “I live in constant financial stress. How can I be at my best physically and mentally for research and teaching when I can’t afford nutritious food?”

At UIC, as at so many other universities, graduate employees teach a large portion of the courses, and many of their classes run upward of 60 students. Teaching assistants make as little as $18,000 but are still required to pay up to $2,000 in annual academic fees, about 10 percent of their income.

Many grad employees work at outside jobs to make ends meet. A fair contract could ease some of that burden and signal respect for the crucial contributions they make on campus.

“Graduate school is supposed to be challenging, not exploitative,” says Schuhrke. “We’re fighting against the idea that grad school is some kind of hazing ritual as opposed to real life. We provide essential labor for UIC. All we’re asking for is some basic financial security so we can live with dignity.”
GEO has been fighting for change in coalition with other campus unions, teaming up for an informational picket in December and a silent protest at the board of trustees meeting. “We are united, and we’re tired of the university’s anti-union culture,” says Schuhrke. The strike sends an even clearer signal: Unless administrators begin to demonstrate a commitment to bargaining for a fair contract, members will withhold their labor until they do.

[Virginia Myers/photo UIC-GEO]