UI grad-student union threatens strike over 'bombshell' on tuition waivers

UI grad-student union threatens strike over 'bombshell' on tuition waivers

CHAMPAIGN — A union representing graduate students is threatening to strike after it says University of Illinois administrators added tuition waivers to the bargaining table Wednesday.

"I do not want to go on strike, but I will to protect my tuition waiver," Gus Wood, co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization, said at a rally Wednesday night. "The university has reversed course and dropped a bombshell on us. They are considering making tuition waivers to be permissive subjects of bargaining, meaning we legally cannot strike over it."

The union represents about 2,700 teaching assistants and graduate assistants who teach classes, conduct research and do other jobs. They get tuition waivers and are also paid stipends for their work.

Their last contract expired Aug. 15. Tensions ratcheted up last week when, following failed negotiating sessions, the GEO filed paperwork with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, starting a 10-day countdown until union members can legally walk off the job.

"We will fight until the very end," said Wood, leading a group of about 200 at Wednesday's rally at the UI Fire Service Institute.

The GEO argues that, as compensation, tuition waivers are a mandatory subject of bargaining and hence are legal to strike over, Wood said.

"Both current and incoming graduate students could lose access to tuition-waiver-generating appointments even if they do the work of a teaching assistant or a graduate assistant," he said.

In a statement, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said: "The aim of the university is to be forthright about our commitment to those who hold waiver-generating assistantships, as well as our need to be more nimble as an institution. Today, we shared our position — which is that the side letter contained in the 2012-17 contract has expired. The time frame and language in the letter are clear on that.

"We also told union representatives that we have a strong shared interest in achieving tuition-waiver language that will work for both parties."

Kaler said it isn't in either side's best interest to be in protracted disputes about these matters.

"This is not a loss for graduate-student employees," Kaler said. "It is a commitment to support them while not putting our academic programs at risk. We remain fully committed to supporting competitive assistantship opportunities, so we continue to attract the best graduate students."

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Reykjavik wrote on February 08, 2018 at 8:02 am

I am sure that most of the GEO students have their hearts in the right place.  They just think that being organized into a union will protect their compensation and work rules, and ideally improve the educational experience.

The thing that stinks about that view is that unions are managed by profit-seeking professionals who have no stake or faith in the idealistic enterprise of a university.  They do not care about instruction, learning, research.  Its all just work, work, work.  But high-level professionals, which grad students aspire to be hopefully, should not see their jobs as "just work," but as an act of devotion and service to society.

And the other potential problem: the most fervent GEO members are probably those in the least employable fields. Why would a grad student CS or Chemistry strike? They are assured of a fruitful, well-compensated career upon completion of their appointments. 

APC wrote on February 08, 2018 at 9:02 am

I don't know about the union leadership, but all organizations generally need dedicated people to run the organization - generally they are paid from the dues and hopefully, since they are paid for the work, they think about the issues involved.  If it is truly the way you indicate, it is sad.

I think your last paragraph hits closest to home, and come closest to the arguments for and against unions.  By and large, not everyone will agree with (or need) the decisions made by the union.  However, hopefully, the majority of people represented will benefit - perhaps to the detriment of others in the union.  The question, as always, becomes whether this is a reasonable bargain. 

My personal belief is that, unlike trade unions, the University generally has less bargaining power as this is a highly skilled field that they cannot go out in the middle of a term to hire/fire or hit up others with more work (e.g., other courses).  Thus, the reasons for a union are lessened than that for a more traditional union. This is not to say that there are no reasons - graduate students and non-tenure track faculty tend to be treated more as peons by the University - just that the balance with whether a union is needed/the costs of the union vs the benefits seem to me to differ from a traditional union.

Needless to say, it would be nice for everyone to be able to obtain something reasonable (e.g., living wage, medical for the union members) without the dramatics of a strike. Reminds me of Young Frankenstein "A riot is an ungly thingk... undt, I tink, that it is chust about time ve had vun"

Erica_UIUC grad student wrote on February 08, 2018 at 12:02 pm

One more follow up to APC as well (just the small detail in the first paragraph of your comment), everyone in a position of leadership in the GEO are all volunteers and members of the union itself. Our bargaining team, president, etc. do not receive compensation for their service. Our compensation comes from our TA and GA positions, or, from the contract we are currently negotiating, which is why members are so passionate about negotiating a good contract. We want to make the lives of our colleagues better, but also commit to the future of graduate programs and labor here at the university. 

Something else to note in response to your thoughts on whether a union is necessary is that I've seen examples of what happens to non-uninonized grad employees at UIUC, unfortunately, because not everyone who is a graduate student is in the bargaining unit. Research Assistants (RA) and Pre-professional graduate students (PGA) are not, sadly, represented by the GEO (this was part of a compromise made to formally unionize back in 2009). I've seen/heard terrible incidents where a supervisor will violate a contract and take advantage of the labor of their RA/PGA, or even threaten the graduate student's position in the program if they don't just go along to get along with things like overwork or health and safety issues. It can make an employee very vulnerable when their work and their continued research/study are tied together within the same department. Additionally, graduate students largely can't afford legal representation on their own to challenge these problems. It's horrible to see how disposable graduate student's labor and general well-being is seen at this institution, and the union provides a resource not only for negotiating a fair contract, but for protecting graduate students where there is a huge gap in power between supervisor and employee. So I've seen major benefits to having a union for graduate students on this campus, but that's just my two cents seeing graduate student experiences from the inside. 


APC wrote on February 08, 2018 at 1:02 pm

Thank you for the information.

Being a big university, I assumed that there would probably be isolated problematic cases (as there are in all big organizations, be they pubic or private).  I was unaware of such problems being epidemic.  It would be good for the NG to have an article devoted to listing the issues and university responses so that the public can be informed.

Nice too to have a discussion devoid of the, now all-too-common, polemic exchanges.

Erica_UIUC grad student wrote on February 08, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Absolutely! I'm glad I could provide some insight.

My Real Name wrote on February 09, 2018 at 2:02 pm

So glad to see helpful and supportive comments pertaining to the GEO. I just want to offer a slight correction: the compromise about the scope of the bargaining unit was first made in 2002-2003, before the GEO negotiated its first contract. By 2009 the GEO was negotiating its third contract. It was also during this bargaining cycle when the Union first went on strike.

A lot of what graduate employees may take for granted is thanks to the union (and it can be be said that whatever is decent about working conditions we owe to unions).


Erica_UIUC grad student wrote on February 08, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Hello! Graduate stuent here just dropping in to add that the GEO is a locally member-run and organized union. Everyone on our bargaining team and in a position of leadership in the organization are all graduate students in the Bargaining Unit that volunteer their time and energy for this campus community (that is, everyone is a teaching assistant or graduate assistant). I know not all unions are run that way, but I think one of the strengths of the GEO is that it works for its members and community because everyone who is part of the organization is also part of that community. 

Everything on the table are issues that will improve the quality of instruction and pool of graduate students in the long run, which is why we are fighting so hard and passionately for these contract negotiations. Financial security for graduate instructors means a greater capacity to serve our community and invest in the values of higher education. My colleagues are passionate and committed teachers, but it is simply impossible to remain in a graduate program for 4, 5, 6+ years and provide quality labor for these students without tuition waivers and a living wage. Whether the person is getting a degree in the humanities or sciences, the less debt people are entering the workforce in, the better. An employer that agrees to a fair contract with a living wage is an employer that values its workforce and mission, in my opinion. 

Glad to see you are following our story!

lizdog wrote on February 12, 2018 at 8:02 am

I think you overestimate how "cushy" high-demand fields have it.  In recent years, the Administration illegally forced international graduate employees in CS to pay their tuition. The financial burden imposed meant that many of these employees were unable to return to their home countries after graduation; some even had to put their families’ homes up as collateral for loans they were forced to take out. Even after the Arbitrator ruled in favor of GEO, the Administration did everything they could to avoid paying these employees the money they were owed, refusing to return phone calls or meet with our Grievance Committee. Only this past December, almost two years after the arbitrator’s decision, was the GEO able to force the administration to pay those employees back.  

GEO serves a purpose for ALL grad students.   


byrdslover wrote on February 08, 2018 at 4:02 pm

Just wanted to mention that the University is in such financial straits that Robin Kaler got a 20% pay raise, to $240,000 per year.

Lostinspace wrote on February 09, 2018 at 5:02 pm

Refreshing to read interesting and informative comments.

Good luck to GEO.

Reykjavik wrote on February 09, 2018 at 11:02 pm

I admit to being worried about the unionization of grad students.  My feelings are based on a fuzzy-warm feeling about the incompatibility of scholarship vs the hard-nosed reality of strikes and strife.  In contrast to my inclinations and preconceived notions, I am impressed by the lack of stridency and the articulateness of members of the GEO.  

aantulov wrote on February 11, 2018 at 7:02 am

Without being well versed in the details its impossible to form an accurate assessment.  But I would voice one not mentioned just on the surface rhetoric, just as others posting.

This seems to me like the University system as a whole is trying to force AMERICAN CITIZENS out of programs, mid investment no less, out of positions that will lead to policy makers and powerful positions in society in the long run.  And, would leave them in serious debt in the short run.

One could say that AMERICAN CITIZENS with family money would not be affected, but they would have to pay much more for the same education, so they would be.

One of the many little known provision of DACA is that illegals are guaranteed to pay INSTATE tuition, not out of the country tuition that legal entrants pay. 

So the wealthy from around the world could be getting a bargain theoretically on a UI education. As limited positions in Grad program become more available. And have in the long run more influence and power.

The wealth as a whole of AMERICAN CITIZENS is being affected.

Education is power. It is not as immediate in some fields or as others nor as financially rewarding as some, but power. In the long run if affects our lives in ways we can barely detect until its well ..powerful.

There are probably many examples better than this one but it comes to mind. It was told to me yesterday, by someone with a PhD. I am curious if it true.

A professor who lived in SE Urbana, on Florida, did the research, and found trans fat to be deadly. But those in power had an agenda that did not include change, but corporate profits and the sale of a lot of pharma drugs. So the study sits unrecognized, DECADES though flawless and countless people die. Why? because those in powerful positions are more concerned with getting paid by corporate masters than by academic excellence. Until… a lawyer not concerned with money, sues those who did not follow policy, or due diligence, to protect AMERICAN CITIZENS.

That’s why the sudden trans fat legality supposedly came about recently.

This is just one teeny example of why its important to have people who know stuff, independent of industry and massive debt. Because they need to not only do the work but have it acknowledged.

Would you have read this piece if it didn’t have DACA or AMERICAN CITIZEN in all caps? Before your opinion is written in stone or stagnation, ask a few more questions, especially those that deal with the long term effects.




BruckJr wrote on February 12, 2018 at 9:02 pm

Makes you wonder how the university survived for 140 years without the GEO.