UPDATED: GEO, UI reach tentative accord

Updated 10 p.m. Tuesday.

URBANA — The union representing about 2,400 graduate employees at the University of Illinois has reached a tentative agreement with the UI.

After more than seven months of bargaining and the threat of a strike looming, the Graduate Employees' Organization reached the tentative contract agreement late Tuesday afternoon after a day-long negotiating session involving a federal meditator. On Monday, more than 100 members camped out in the Illini Union grading papers and meeting with students, several of them spending the night in the building with the aim of sending a message to administration that they wanted a fair contract, and soon.

GEO spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell said she was "cautiously optimistic" members would ratify the contract. Graduate employees met Tuesday evening to hear contract details.

Seawell declined to reveal specifics about the contract until the voting process is complete, which is expected to take several days.

"It was a fair proposal," said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler. She called it "the best offer" the university could propose "within the constraints we face."

"We're thrilled and really appreciate the leadership of the union working with us to come to a fair agreement. We're optimistic we will continue to work together for the life of the contract," Kaler said.

She and Seawell declined to say how long the contract will be valid. The GEO's last contract was from Aug. 16, 2009, to Aug. 15, 2012.

The agreement averts a potential strike. Earlier this month, the union overwhelmingly approved a strike after prolonged negotiations had failed to produce an agreement.

"It was a long day of bargaining. ... But we reached an agreement on everything," Seawell said on Tuesday evening. "Now we really want our members to take the time to read it and make up their minds" on whether it should be approved or not, Seawell said.

Bargaining started in April and a federal mediator was brought in this fall. It wasn't until recently that the two sides started to discuss the issues most important to the GEO: wages, health care coverage and costs and protection of tuition waivers.

On Monday's bargaining session the union asked the university for a 3.25 percent raise, to cover 85 percent of their employee health insurance fee (the UI covers 75 percent currently) and for the UI to cover 35 percent of the health insurance fees for graduate employees' dependents.

Members also have been seeking language in the contract that protects tuition waivers. In 2009 the GEO went on strike for two days over tuition waivers. After the 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 to the courts.

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