Illinois grad employees win tuition waiver protection

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The Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced on Dec. 7 that 95 percent of its voting membership had ratified a new five-year contract with the university, running from Aug. 16, 2012, to Aug. 15, 2017. The GEO is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the AFT and represents 2,400 teaching and graduate assistants.


For the second time in three years, as the fall semester was in high gear, the graduate employees found themselves staring down a strike over a bedrock issue for all graduate employees—tuition waiver protection. (See earlier story.) The university has been trying to erode the benefit since the GEO held a successful two-day strike in 2009 and secured the language in the contract.

"Tuition waivers are a fundamental part of graduate education at every major university," says GEO spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell. "Waivers are how universities, like the University of Illinois, are able to hire and compete for high-quality and diverse graduate students."

A year into that contract, the university arbitrarily reduced the benefit to cover just the in-state value of the tuition for some teaching assistants in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. The union filed a grievance, and in 2011, an arbitrator found that the university had unilaterally violated the contract. The university appealed, and on Nov. 15, 2012, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board unanimously upheld that decision and ordered that the teaching assistants be reimbursed for the difference, with interest.

"The labor board decision had an impact, even though it was about the last contract," says Natalie Uhl, a fifth-year doctoral student in anthropology and a member of the GEO bargaining team. Other cards that strengthened the union's hand: a strike authorization vote supported by 87 percent of voters, a skilled mediator, and an "active, energetic membership" that did teach-ins, work-ins and rallies and attended open bargaining sessions.

"Our sense about the waivers," says Uhl, "was that the administration was trying something: Could they switch to a more private, corporate model at a Big Ten, land-grant research institution? If they had been successful, a lot of places might have followed suit."

With an eye to the bigger picture, she adds, "There are not a lot of grad locals. There are a lot trying to organize. This is a nice display of where collective bargaining really was the thing that gave us the power to protect our tuition waivers. If we hadn't been organized, with the IFT and AFT behind us, we would have been powerless."

The GEO was also able to secure increases to the minimum stipends and to what the employer would pay for health insurance premiums. In a side letter, the university agreed to comply with the IELRB order.  [Barbara McKenna/photo by Dave Commerford]

November 29, 2012