Their determination and persistence paid off. After 11 days on strike, graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have ratified a contract that rescues previously threatened tuition waivers, increases health insurance coverage and grants workers a 4.5 percent raise in the first year. The tuition waivers were a particularly important victory; many graduate employees would be unable to attend graduate school without them—and worker advocates recently won a fight to prevent President Trump's administration from taxing them as income.
The ratification vote, counted on March 9, was 98 percent in favor.
Union leaders widely praised the rank-and-file members of the Graduate Employees' Organization for the successful strike, the longest in UIUC history. "Because of the dedication of the members in this union we have a contract," says GEO Co-President Gus Wood. Grads ran a strong social media campaign with positive messages such as #EducationForAll, highlighting the importance of keeping graduate education affordable. They stayed in touch with media outlets, stood strong during contract negotiations and dedicated themselves to the picketing, chanting and drumming that garnered widespread attention and support. In the final days of the strike, many occupied the president's and chancellor's offices, littering the floor with sleeping bags overnight. From organizing child care for strikers to arranging for large groups to picket in shifts, the work was constant. "Countless hours of organizing made this happen," says Wood.
"Going on strike is never an easy decision, and we know that GEO had exhausted every possible avenue before taking that step," says Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. "Ultimately, it was their courage that pushed the administration to do what is right for all students."
The contract serves all students with several measures intended to embrace diversity and equity. For example, it requires supervisors to attempt to accommodate workers who have to miss time due to a visa or immigration issue; adds ethnicity, visa/immigration status, gender expression and arrest record status as protected categories in discrimination language; and recognizes microaggressions as a basis for discrimination/harassment grievances. There is also gender-neutral language throughout the contract.
Other particulars include a provision to prevent late-appointment notification, a problem GEO identified in 90 percent of all appointments. The new contract requires the university to distribute appointment letters 30 days in advance or pay the appointed graduate employee $50. Raises will be 4.5 percent the first year, then 2 percent in the second and third years. Health insurance premium coverage increased from 80 to 87 percent and added one dependent at 25 percent.
"Something is changing in this country because of you," said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who joined GEO on the last day of the strike. "Because of your solidarity, you proved that when we are unified, we are not afraid to take the risk to fight for ourselves, our families and our communities. A union makes possible what is impossible for individuals to do by themselves. You are proving that we can have a world that is fairer and that actually respects the work that working-class people do."