UI grad-student union sets deadline for strike: Feb. 26

UI grad-student union sets deadline for strike: Feb. 26

URBANA — Graduate employees at the University of Illinois say they will walk off the job on Feb. 26 unless a contract agreement is reached in the meantime.

While the UI and Graduate Employees Organization have yet to agree on wages, the latest stumbling block in the 11th month of negotiations is a university proposal affecting tuition waivers.

The university wants to create more graduate programs that would not be required to grant full tuition waivers to students who are hired as teaching or research assistants.

Under current university policy, graduate students who have 25 percent appointments (10 hours a week, based on a 40-hour work week), automatically receive free tuition, a standard practice at major public universities.

A side letter to the GEO contract, added in 2009, guarantees that the terms for tuition waivers would not change for the life of the agreement.

But the latest contract expired in August, and UI officials argue that allows them to make the change.

Graduate student Gus Wood, the GEO's co-president, said administrators dropped that "bombshell" during negotiations Wednesday for the first time.

The union maintains that tuition waivers are part of graduate workers' compensation and therefore a mandatory subject of bargaining. That position, he said, was upheld in two separate binding arbitration decisions, in 2011 and 2015.

"They want it to be optional," Wood said. "Optional is something that nobody can afford."

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university does not want to dismantle the tuition-waiver system or take away any student's waiver.

But she said some high-demand graduate programs would be able to attract students even if they were required to pay full or partial tuition. And the university needs the flexibility to create more self-supporting or revenue-generating programs, given substantial cuts in state funding, she said.

Most UI colleges already offer self-supporting programs, many of them off-campus or online, such as the Executive MBA program or education programs geared toward school administrators, according to the UI's website.

Kaler said graduate students in the new programs might still get a partial waiver covering the base graduate in-state tuition, now at $12,488. But full tuition for out-of-state students, and even Illinois students in a few programs, tops $30,000 annually.

Essentially, Wood said, the UI is telling graduate employees who make less than $17,000 a year (for a 50 percent appointment) that they will have to start paying more to attend the UI than they are earning in their salaries.

If tuition waivers aren't protected by the contract, the GEO said, fewer waivers will be made available and graduate workers will have to compete for them, likening it to a "Hunger Games" scenario.

Wood argued that the change would "decimate" the number of graduate students on campus, as many wouldn't be able to afford graduate school without a waiver.

Individual departments could suffer because they could only recruit those who can afford to pay high tuition rather than the best students, the union said.

Also, fewer graduate employees would be legally protected by the GEO's contract, "as the administration's position is that only employees with tuition waivers are members of our bargaining unit," the union said.

Wood called it a "union-busting strategy. This is exactly how it starts."

The UI says it will not change any tuition waivers granted to current students — even if they're in a program that no longer automatically offers them in the future — as long as they remain in good academic standing and continue to make progress toward their degrees.

"The University simply wants to preserve its ability, as reflected within the management rights clause of the collective bargaining agreement, to develop new graduate programs, assess and review current programs, and re-designate, suspend or terminate programs when necessary," the UI's negotiations website says.

Wood said the union understands that new programs are important for maintaining a world-class university but the administration should work with the union on a plan that is best for all graduate students and the undergraduates they teach.

Back in 2009, the university had proposed raising the eligibility for an automatic tuition waiver to a 33 percent appointment (13 hours a week). Then, as now, the university was experiencing a drop in state funding and looking for ways to save money.

The GEO objected, resulting in the side letter to the contract.

The union filed an intent-to-strike notice on Jan. 29, starting a 10-day countdown until members could legally walk off the job.

The union set the strike date for Feb. 26 "to give the university administration as much time as possible to settle this in the bargaining room," Wood said. "We do not want to go on strike."

The next bargaining session with a federal mediator is scheduled for Feb. 15.