Some optimism in UI-GEO talks, but union camping in Union overnight

Some optimism in UI-GEO talks, but union camping in Union overnight

URBANA — With the threat of a strike looming, members of the Graduate Employees' Organization expressed some optimism about the state of negotiations with the University of Illinois but at the same time said they wanted to send the message that they are committed to settling the contract, prompting many to pull an all-nighter at the Illini Union on Monday.

The Union closes at midnight, but several GEO members planned to stay there beyond the closing time. University police said they won't force them out.

The "work-in" began on Monday morning with about 100 of the union's members camping out in the Union's Courtyard Cafe grading papers, meeting with students and reading. It continued through the afternoon with some graduate employees remaining and others attending the latest bargaining session with university administrators and a federal mediator.

The union is calling the decision to remain in the Union overnight a "symbolic act of civil disobedience."

"We think we're doing something extremely peaceful and fair," said GEO member Zack Poppel. He alerted police about their intentions and didn't anticipate any disruptions.

"We respect the right of people to express themselves. That's what universities are all about," said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

"Unless they're destroying property, we will not forcibly remove them," said UI Police Sgt. William Smoot.

Smoot said he did not anticipate any problems. He planned to make sure a university police officer or two was in the building after hours in an "Officer Friendly-type of situation."

GEO spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell said the decision to spend the night in the Union grew out of discussions members had at the work-in throughout the day Monday.

"It's a symbolic place for the University of Illinois. I do think of the student union as a place where the campus comes together," she said.

She said members wanted to send a message to the UI administration that they're serious about coming to an agreement with the university on a new contract, but she and other members wanted to do something that would affect a handful of people as opposed to the thousands who would be affected if a strike were to occur.

That's not to say a strike still couldn't happen.

Last week GEO membership overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote following months of negotiations between the GEO and the university. The two sides have been bargaining since April and have yet to come to an agreement on the three issues critical to the union: wages, health care and tuition waivers.

On Monday the union presented its latest offer to the university. Administrators reportedly spent much of the bargaining session discussing the proposal among themselves. Union members said they were told to expect a response from the university on Tuesday morning. A bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday morning and a general membership meeting will be held that evening.

"We expect it will be significant movement on their part," Seawell said. "If it's not significant, [graduate employees] will be disappointed," she said.

The union had originally proposed a 4 percent increase in wages for all employees, but recently reduced that to 3.25 percent. The union had also asked for health insurance to cover them during the summer months, but dropped that proposal. However, the union is still asking the university to cover 85 percent of their employee health insurance fee (the UI covers 75 percent currently) and they're asking the university to cover 35 percent of the health insurance fees for dependents.

An estimated 10 percent of graduate employees have children, and for those who do, it's costly to pay for health insurance for dependents in addition to themselves, said Ingbert Schmidt, a Ph.D. student in library science. He pays about $310 per semester for his health insurance and $625 for his son.

"Getting a higher percentage covered (by the UI) will help for those living on the margins. Every little bit helps. And getting any kind of help on the child's premium is huge," he said. None of the dependent care fee is covered by the UI now, he said.

Graduate employees also are seeking protection of their tuition waivers. The GEO went on strike over waivers in 2009. After that strike, the union won concessions in contract language that protected waivers for assistants in good academic standing who make proper progress toward graduation in their original program. But in 2010, waivers were reduced for some incoming graduate assistants.

The union filed a grievance, the case went to arbitration and 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.

Earlier this month the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board upheld the arbitrator's ruling and said the university must bargain in good faith and must reimburse students who lost tuition waivers.

A decision has not yet been made on whether the university will appeal the labor board's ruling, according to Robin Kaler.

Kaler said the university was optimistic an agreement could be reached. At the same time, preparations are under way in case a strike is called.

"We certainly hope that people will continue to fulfil their obligations to their undergraduate students," she said. "We talked with departments to make sure they're prepared for whatever may happen," she said.

The bargaining unit represents 2,400 graduate employees on the Urbana campus.

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