UPDATED 6:25 p.m. Friday.
CHAMPAIGN — After meeting with University of Illinois officials more than 20 times to negotiate a new contract, members of the Graduate Employees' Organization have authorized a strike.
Friday's announcement, which followed several days of voting by graduate researchers and teaching assistants and other workers, comes about three months after the union's contract expired.
The decision, announced Friday afternoon, does not mean an immediate strike will occur, but it does allow the formation of a strike committee, said union spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell. Committee members were expected to meet for the first time Friday evening to discuss their next steps. The committee decides the timing of a strike and handles the organization, such as where the picketing will be held. Essentially they could call a strike at any time.
"As of today, they have the authority to call a strike," Seawell said Friday afternoon.
Nearly 87 percent of members voting approved the strike measure, according to Seawell, who declined to release the exact count of how many people voted.
The bargaining unit represents 2,400 graduate employees on the Urbana campus.
The union has been negotiating with the university since April; the contract expired in August. A federal mediator was recently brought in to help with negotiations, although no agreement has been reached yet. The next scheduled session will not occur until Monday, Nov. 26. The Thanksgiving break begins today and classes resume on Nov. 26.
"The GEO doesn't want to go on strike. We want to stay in the classroom," Seawell said. However, the two sides have yet to come to agreement over an issue the union has been wrangled with the university since 2009: tuition waivers.
"What needs to happen is serious negotiations at the bargain table about waivers and fair and living wages," she said.
The university provided a comprehensive proposal, which included tuition waiver and wage provisions, to the union at its recent bargaining session and members are still reviewing the language.
The union is seeking language that protects tuition waivers for all employees and it wants an increase in pay for grad employees who earn the lowest amount, around $14,000.
It was tuition waivers that prompted the union to strike for two days in 2009. After that strike, the union won concessions in contract language that protected waivers during the term of the three-year agreement for assistants in good academic standing who make proper progress toward graduation in their original program. But in 2010, the College of Fine and Applied Arts reduced waivers for some incoming graduate assistants.
The union filed a grievance and the case went to arbitration. 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 week the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board upheld the arbitrator's ruling in favor of the GEO's grievance over tuition waivers. In a 5-0 decision, the board said the university must bargain in good faith and must reimburse students who lost tuition waivers, with 7 percent annual interest.
The university could appeal the decision to state courts.
In a recent message to the campus, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said a strike is "neither inevitable nor necessary."
"The issues of tuition waivers and pay can be resolved through negotiation and mediation, as they have been in the past," he said.