Union to announce strike-vote results Friday

URBANA — A day after a state labor board ruled in its favor on a controversial tuition-waiver policy, the Graduate Employees' Organization will announce Friday whether its members have authorized a possible strike against the University of Illinois.

The GEO, which has been negotiating a new contract with the UI since April, planned to announce the results of a four-day strike-authorization vote at 2:30 p.m. at the University YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St., C.

A yes vote would not mean an immediate strike, but it would allow the creation of a strike committee that could call one at any time, said spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell.

"This just puts that option all the way on the table, if it passes," Seawell said.

Last month, the union filed intent-to-strike paperwork with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, following a nearly unanimous vote by members to approve that procedural step.

Meanwhile, the labor board on Thursday upheld an arbitrator's ruling in favor of the GEO's grievance over tuition waivers, originally filed in 2010.

Protecting tuition waivers is a core issue for the union, and the reason about 1,000 union members went on strike in 2009. After a two-day strike, the union won concessions in contract language that protected waivers during the term of the three-year agreement for assistants in good academic standing who make proper progress toward graduation in their original program. The language noted that was "consistent with longstanding and ongoing practice."

But in 2010, the College of Fine and Applied Arts reduced waivers for some incoming graduate assistants, a difference of more than $13,000 in some cases.

The union filed a grievance, saying the policy violated the GEO's contract. The case went to arbitration and last fall the arbitrator ruled that the contract language protected tuition waivers for all members of the bargaining unit, not just those who were on campus when the contract was signed.

The state labor board agreed in a 5-0 decision and said the university also must reimburse students who lost tuition waivers, with 7 percent annual interest. Seawell said that cost likely exceeds $100,000 at this point.

The university could appeal the decision to state courts.

"We hope that the administration abides by it," Seawell said.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Thursday that the campus was not surprised by the ruling.

"We are considering our options going forward," she said.

The GEO's last contract expired in mid-August. The two sides have met more than 20 times since last April, including twice recently with a federal mediator.

At the last session, the university gave the GEO language that addresses all unresolved issues, including wages, health insurance and tuition waivers, Kaler said.

"Obviously, we respect the right of unionized employees to strike, but we are still confident we can work together with the GEO to avoid that," she said.

Seawell was less confident. She said the new language proposed by the UI would cement the university's interpretation of the tuition-waiver provision.

"I was involved (in the strike) last time, and I would love it if we didn't have to and we settle this at the bargaining table," she said. "The way mediation has gone so far doesn't bode well in that regard. We are still pretty far apart, especially on the issue of tuition waivers."

The GEO said tuition waivers allow universities to compete for high-quality and diverse graduate students and are a "fundamental part of graduate education at every major university."

Graduate assistants teach more than 20 percent of all course hours at the UI and more than 36 percent of all freshman classes, according to the GEO.

Kaler said the university wouldn't consider ending tuition waivers.

"The key point to remember here is, we are competing with peer institutions for the best students," Kaler said. "Of course we have to be able to offer competitive tuition waivers to get those students."

Earlier this fall, the 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. That grievance is still pending.

The GEO represents about 2,400 graduate employees on campus.

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