GEO takes first step in possible strike against UI

GEO takes first step in possible strike against UI

URBANA — Graduate employees at the University of Illinois are preparing for a possible strike as negotiations drag on between the union and university.

The Graduate Employees Organization plans to file intent-to-strike paperwork with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board following a nearly unanimous vote by members Thursday evening.

On Thursday, 173 members voted in favor of the intent-to-strike motion and one union member opposed it.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going on strike,” said Stephanie Seawell, a UI graduate student in history and member of GEO’s communications committee. Instead, filing the papers is seen as “one of the tools on the table” as the union continues to bargain with the university for a new contract. Negotiations began in April; the union’s contract expired in mid-August.

“We’re sending a signal that we’re serious, that these issues are really important to our members,” Seawell said.

Some agreement has been reached on non-monetary is­­sues, such as accommodations for nursing mothers. However, the two sides have yet to thoroughly discuss the most important issues for members, Seawell said. The three most important issues are tuition waivers, wages and health care.

In recent weeks, the union filed a request with the labor board for a federal mediator to be part of the negotiating sessions. Just hours before the union’s general membership meeting on Thursday, the bargaining team learned the UI consented to a mediator.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler described the most recent bargaining session, held on Wednesday, as “low key.”

“Discussions on the remaining issues were fruitful, even though we didn’t reach agreement on any of them. Given that most issues have been resolved, and the few remaining ones are significant ... we let the GEO know that we are willing to enter mediation,” Kaler said.

Seawell said she hopes having a mediator in the room will prompt the two sides to have “a serious conversation” about tuition waivers, wages and health care.

“We aren’t talking in a productive way about the core issues. We’re not close to resolution on wages or health care. And there’s been no productive conversation about tuition waivers,” she said.

Protecting tuition waivers is a core issue for the union, and the reason why union members went on strike in 2009. After two days of being on strike that year, the union won concessions in contract language that protected waivers. But in 2010, a new administrative policy change moved to reduce waivers for some incoming graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. The union filed a grievance, saying the policy violated the GEO’s contract. The case went to arbitration and last fall the arbitrator sided with the union.

It’s still pending before the state labor board.

Earlier this fall, GEO filed a grievance and an unfair labor practice charge with the labor board after tuition waivers and paychecks for some graduate employees were delayed, prompting some to apply for emergency, short-term loans. Several of the graduate employees affected by the payment delays hold leadership positions in the union, according to the union.

GEO represents about 2,400 graduate employees on the Urbana-Champaign campus.