Graduate employees prepare for strike over tuition waivers

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The Graduate Employees' Organization, representing 2,400 graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, voted by an 87 percent margin last week to give strike authorization to its bargaining team. The teaching and graduate assistants, who have been working under an expired contract since Aug. 16, have been in negotiations since April.

Credit: GEOOn Nov. 8, graduate employees and supporters held a "We Want to Work" rally on campus.

The issue at stake is protection of tuition waivers, which teaching and graduate assistants receive as part of their compensation. The university has been trying to erode the value of the waivers for the past three years. In 2009, more than 1,000 GEO members held a successful two-day strike to win language in the contract to protect the waivers—the provision of which was a longstanding practice at the university. Despite the contract, the next year, the university reduced tuition waivers for some graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts to cover only in-state tuition.

The GEO grieved this violation and, in 2011, a third-party party arbitrator ruled in the union's favor. The university appealed, and, as the GEO was holding its strike vote, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board issued its decision, unanimously upholding the arbitration decision. The labor board called on the university to reimburse the cost of tuition to the affected graduate employees—and to add 7 percent interest.

Before contract talks even began this year, says Stephanie Seawell, GEO communications officer and former co-president, an administrator told GEO representatives that the university sees graduate student tuition as a means to "generate revenue."

The teaching and research assistants were appalled. GEO members teach more than 20 percent of course hours at the UIUC, and more than 36 percent of freshman classes. "Tuition waivers are a fundamental part of graduate education at every major university," says Seawell. "Waivers are how universities, like the University of Illinois, are able to hire and compete for high-quality and diverse graduate students."

Across the country, graduate employees agree. "We are very mindful" of what is happening at Illinois, says Samantha Montgomery, solidarity and political action chair of the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Michigan. "We don't want to see that coming our way."

GEO points out that one effect of not having tuition waiver protection in the contract is a significantly narrowed pool of graduate students at the university—just those from Illinois and those who can afford the out-of-state tuition.

The Campus Faculty Association strongly supported the GEO in its strike three years ago and has issued a letter supporting the GEO's ongoing battle. The university's student newspaper also has come out in support of the teachers.

The strike authorization vote does not mean the union will go on strike, says GEO on its website. On Nov. 8, GEO held a "We Want to Work" rally on campus, sending the message that members want to settle the issues of tuition waivers, healthcare benefits and wages at the bargaining table. "We want to stay in the classroom," says Seawell. [Barbara McKenna/Photo: GEO]