CHAMPAIGN — Graduate employees at the University of Illinois are voting this week on a new five-year contract that guarantees them 2.5 percent raises for the first year and protects tuition waivers for the life of the contract.
After more than seven months of negotiations and under the threat of a strike, the Graduate Employees' Organization and the university signed a tentative agreement last week. On Friday, the votes on the contract's ratification will be tallied and announced.
The tentative contract includes language the union had sought: UI graduate employees will not have their tuition waivers reduced while they're in good academic standing and are making progress in the program in which they began.
As for wages, new graduate employees with a minimum appointment (50 percent full-time equivalent on a nine-month basis) will earn $15,190, up 2.5 percent from the current amount of $14,820, according to the contract. That amount will increase by 2.5 percent next year and 1.5 percent for the subsequent years on the contract.
Current graduate employees up for reappointment will receive 2.5 percent raises retroactive to Aug. 16, when the previous contract expired. After that, the raises will be tied to the campus wage program, which is determined annually by the provost's office. This academic year the average raises were 2.5 percent. Wage programs in recent years have varied from 0 to 3 percent.
"We know it's bargaining, it's negotiations. We can't get everything we want. The bargaining teams's perspective was that tuition waivers were, for most of our members, the number one issue," said Natalie Uhl, a member of GEO's bargaining team.
She said members would have liked to have seen larger wage increases and more support for graduate employees who are parents or international students, but "we had to concede in order to get the tuition waiver language."
One of the union's proposals was for the university to help cover some of the costs of the health insurance premium for dependents, but that was dropped. The UI currently pays 75 percent of the individual student's health insurance fee, and the new contract calls for the university to pay 80 percent.
What's notable about the tentative agreement, according to GEO spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell, is a section that essentially settles an ongoing dispute between the university and the union regarding 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 in the College of Fine and Applied Arts.
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 reimburse students who lost tuition waivers.
In the tentative agreement, the university agreed to credit the accounts of graduate employees in urban and regional planning, landscape architecture, music, theater and dance, at 7 percent interest since 2010. The UI also agreed it will not appeal the labor board's recent decision.
"Getting (tuition waivers) not only protected for the next five years, but getting our redress for people adversely impacted for the university's violation of the contract is a big deal. It was a lot of money for people who don't make much money. And the opportunity to make members whole was a big deal," Seawell said.
The union is still in the process of identifying people who were affected by the reductions.