FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: FOR THE FIRST TIME, MAJOR STUDENT UNION AT UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS OVERWHELMINGLY VOTES TO AUTHORIZE A STRIKE
GRADUATE EMPLOYEES’ ORGANIZATION REPRESENTS ONE OF LARGEST LOCAL HIGHER EDUCATION BARGAINING UNITS IN THE UNITED STATES
URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS (November 7): On Monday, November 9th, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) will hold a press conference at 1:00 pm at 1001 S. Wright Street in Champaign, IL to announce the results of its strike authorization vote.
Over the course of a three day vote, an overwhelming 92% of participating GEO members chose to authorize a strike against the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. With the vote, GEO members have given the strike committee of the GEO a clear mandate to call a strike at any time. The Graduate Employee’s Organization, American Federation of Teachers/Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300, AFL-CIO, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a labor union representing all teaching and graduate assistants (TAs and GAs) on the UIUC campus. With over 2600 GEO members, and over 2600 graduate employees represented in the bargaining unit, the GEO is one of the largest higher education union locals in the United States.
The GEO has been negotiating with UIUC administrators for over six months. The GEO seeks a contract that will set the minimum salary for a 50% nine month appointment at the University’s estimate of a living wage for a graduate student in Urbana-Champaign and protect tuition waivers for TAs and GAs. While the GEO presented the administration with a full contract proposal on the first day of negotiations, the UIUC administration declined to offer a counterproposal until August 11th, just four days before the GEO’s previous contract expired. The UIUC administration’s initial contract proposal sought to freeze GEO wages for three years, reserve the right to furlough and layoff graduate employees in good standing, and to count “in-kind” compensation such as housing or meal vouchers toward the minimum salary mandated in the contract.
The GEO understands that the state of Illinois is in dire economic straits, but as University administrators pointed out in their FY 2010 budget request, this is the result of long standing deficiencies in state level budget prioritization and not a sudden result of the recent national recession. Instead of championing the university’s historic land grant mission, UIUC administrators have embraced the national tendency toward the corporatization of the public higher education system. Their consequent failure to secure adequate state funding leaves the social science, humanities, and fine arts especially vulnerable. Worse, it jeopardizes access to higher education for many who have the capacity and desire, but not the financial resources to attend the University. If increased state funding is also necessary to providing at least a living wage for all campus employees, then the GEO expects the UIUC administration to forcefully make that case to the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, other state legislators, and the Governor.
Instead of advocating on the behalf of students and workers, administrators were granting costly favors to state politicians. The former Chancellor diverted $450,000 of discretionary funds to provide jobs and scholarships for politically well-connected but undeserving applicants. Another $400,000 went to the attorneys who represented the University before the Governor’s investigative committee, and another $550,000 to new faculty appointments for the former President and Chancellor. In this context, the GEO finds it hard to trust the UIUC administration when it argues that there is not enough money to provide a living wage. From the GEO’s perspective, it appears that budget priorities are simply out of place. When campus revenues rose by 7% in FY 2009, only 0.8% ($2.7 million) went to undergraduate instruction. Meanwhile, the Chief Information Officer’s budget rose by 10.9 percent ($1.6 million), and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics budget increased 6.2 percent ($4.1 million).
GEO bargaining unit members teach 23.1% of all undergraduate course hours at UIUC, and perform comparably to faculty in official student evaluations of instructor performance as measured by the University of Illinois’ Center for Teaching Excellence. Yet our salaries draw only 6.5% of state funding, including salaries for GAs and Research Assistants, who don’t teach. By contrast, faculty salaries draw over 55% of the University budget. Graduate employee labor is vital to the fiscally efficient provision of the University’s core service, academic instruction. Should graduate employee salaries be set to a living wage, the University would still have a large pool of inexpensive and high quality instructional and administrative labor.
GEO members have been working hard to avoid a strike. Hundreds of GEO members have participated in three major rallies, and GEO members have also lobbied the Illinois House of Representatives Higher Education Appropriations Committee, spoken with state legislators from Champaign, actively informed campus community members about the issues, and maintained a constant presence in Urbana-Champaign print, radio and television media. The Illinois Student Senate has passed two resolutions in support of the GEO and the decision to authorize a strike, and GEO supporters in the faculty senate are working to pass a similar resolution. GEO members and allies will hold a rally at the University of Illinois Board of Trustees Meeting in Springfield, IL on November 12.
As with any labor negotiation, however, the most effective pressure has been the threat of a strike. Only after GEO members at a General Membership Meeting voted unanimously to file an “intent to strike” notice did the University administration offer their first compromise proposals. Accordingly, the Coordinating Committee and Steward’s Council of the GEO voted unanimously to hold a strike authorization vote from November 4-6. By voting to authorize a strike, GEO members have taken a vital step in holding the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign administration accountable to its stated commitment to excellence in research and undergraduate education.