UPDATED: GEO ratifies contract; strike over

UPDATED: GEO ratifies contract; strike over

NEW 10 p.m. Friday:

GEO Co-President Gus Wood reported that the contract has been ratified and the strike is over. Wood said 98% of voting members voted in favor. He did not disclose the total number of union members who voted.

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URBANA — The tentative agreement between the University of Illinois and striking graduate employees provides a five-year contract with three years of wage increases, expanded health coverage and guaranteed tuition waivers for any teaching assistant or graduate assistant.

The details were provided by union leaders Thursday evening as members of the Graduate Employees' Organization voted on the agreement, announced earlier in the day after a marathon 26-hour bargaining session. At least 600 GEO members voted Thursday, a spokeswoman said, and a second ratification vote is scheduled for this afternoon.

"We got our two biggest priorities related to addressing financial stability and guaranteed tuition waivers," said Gus Wood, co-president of the GEO. "We are super excited about that."

The deal was announced on the 11th day of the strike by the group, which represents 2,700 teaching assistants and administrative graduate assistants (who do office work or web design, for example).

"I think it is a fair agreement," said Provost Andreas Cangellaris, who was up all night getting updates from UI negotiators at the Fire Services Institute. "I feel good about it.

"I have to give credit to both sides. They were fully engaged, very careful and diligent in their conversations. I think they need to be congratulated for staying the course," he said. "I'm delighted we're here, and I look forward to bringing this to a closure."

Among the main components:

— Wages: The campus minimum for a half-time teaching/graduate assistants will increase by 4.5 percent this year, and 2 percent each in the second and third years of the agreement. The parties agreed to reopen wage negotiations for years four and five.

Assistants reappointed to the same jobs will receive a 2.5 percent pay increase the first year and the same raise as the campus wage program for years two and three, with the final two years reopened for negotiations.

— Health insurance: The UI will cover 87 percent of graduate workers' health insurance premiums, up from 80 percent, and 25 percent of the premium for one dependent.

— Job notice: The UI agreed to give TAs and graduate assistants one-month notice of any job appointment; if that deadline isn't met, the worker can file a claim for $50.

GEO spokeswoman Ashli Anda said those notices are sometimes "very late," making financial planning and child care difficult for members.

On tuition waivers

Regarding tuition waivers, the UI had been seeking more flexibility to expand self-supporting programs — mostly professionally oriented master's degrees — that charge full tuition, in order to generate income.

The GEO wanted to ensure that any graduate student who works as a teaching assistant or administrative graduate assistant was guaranteed a tuition waiver, no matter what program they were enrolled in. The union wanted to keep language to that effect in a 2009 side letter to the contract.

The tentative agreement incorporates that provision into the main contract, with some significant changes, said graduate student Bruce Kovanen, a lead negotiator for the GEO.

Most important from the union's perspective, anyone with a 25 percent to 67 percent time appointment as a teaching assistant or graduate assistant will be guaranteed a waiver, he said. The type of waiver — full or base rate (similar to in-state tuition) — will depend on which program they're enrolled in, he said.

But the language also affirms the university's ability to create and set the direction for new academic programs, he said.

Students in self-supporting programs will "most likely have to seek different kinds of employment," he said.

Another provision requires the university to outline the relevant tuition waiver policy for a particular program in each student's offer letter, "so there's no confusion," he said.

"In our minds, it combines what both parties had been seeking," Kovanen said. "For us, if you do the work of the bargaining unit, you get the waiver."

'I'm extremely relieved'

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the UI wouldn't discuss the details of the agreement until all union members have a chance to hear it from their negotiating team and vote on the contract.

Cangellaris said negotiators addressed the tuition waiver issue in a "very constructive and thoughtful way."

Later, in a message to campus, he said the tentative agreement ensures graduate employees "will have the financial and personal security to focus fully on the academic pursuits and aspirations that brought them here. And this agreement also guarantees our faculty the flexibility to ensure the future quality and competitiveness of our academic programs in the rapidly shifting landscape of global higher education."

GEO members had started picketing as usual at 8 a.m. Thursday, but the union suspended picketing once the deal was announced about 11 a.m. Union members also ended their occupation of the UI president's office at the Henry Administration Building and the chancellor's office at the Swanlund Administration Building.

Union leaders said the strike is technically still on until after the vote. If the agreement is ratified, TAs will return to work Monday. If not, they'll be back on the picket lines.

The two sides have been bargaining for about a year. Negotiators started the latest session at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

About 100 union members and supporters rallied outside Foellinger Auditorium at noon to celebrate the tentative agreement, chanting "GEO!" and cheering when strike captain Jennifer Jones announced the news.

"I'm extremely relieved," said anthropology graduate student Amanda Butler, standing on the Quad with her sleeping bag after a two-night campout in the president's office. "I want nothing more than to get back to my students and teaching and finish writing my dissertation."

'A fight for the soul'

GEO members walked off the job Feb. 26. The strike has forced the cancellation of several hundred classes and prompted instructors to move hundreds of others to buildings away from the UI's main Quad so students and faculty didn't have to cross picket lines.

Philip Knight, a senior in mechanical engineering, said the strike hadn't really disrupted his classes, other than discussion sections. And one of his TAs who was helping him with a design project went on strike.

"We've had to rely more on our professor, but he's super busy," Knight said. "I'm happy they're back to work."

Music Professor Adam Kruse, who performed at Thursday's rally, thanked the union for its efforts.

"This was nothing short of a fight for the soul of our university," he said, adding "it's not done yet."

Physics graduate student Will Morong was encouraged by the tentative settlement.

"Certainly the strike has gone on much longer than many of us expected," he said. "It felt at times like a battle of attrition a little bit. We're all very happy to see that it might be coming to a close."

Cangellaris said he had hoped the strike wouldn't last as long as it did, but added, "we are in a better place today than we were 10 days ago."

He said the tentative agreement required "a significant commitment to find a common ground, and what I saw in the last 26 hours is that commitment at its best."

Wood praised the solidarity of graduate employees during the strike.

"We were not going to go back to work, were not going to suspend the picketing or the occupation, we weren't going to give into anything that did not address our significant needs," he said.