Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance (UGA), and the Campus Faculty Association (CFA), joined roughly 15,000 Illinois residents and union members on April 21 for “Lobby Day” in the state capitol. Forming one of the largest rallies in Illinois’ history, participants marched around the statehouse holding signs reading “S.O.S.” and chanting “Save our state! Save our schools!” The state of Illinois currently faces a $13 billion deficit and owes the University of Illinois system over $400 million in unpaid bills. The GEO previously published an open letter to University of Illinois administrators calling on them to join the GEO in Springfield. The letter reiterated the GEO’s commitment “to ensuring that the University of Illinois remain true to its mission as a public land grant institution to provide education that is truly accessible to all, regardless of economic background.”
While some GEO members participated in the rally, others delivered the union’s message to legislators in their offices and at the statehouse. The GEO’s lobbying and legislative action committee’s platform included support for HB 174, which would modernize the Illinois tax system and raise over $5 billion in revenue directed toward educational spending. GEO co-president Stephanie Seawell, who participated in rally, said, “The state has been increasingly underfunding the University for decades, and much of the shortfall has been made up with rising tuition and fees. That logic is unsustainable. We’re seeing a steady drop in the number of middle class families who don’t qualify for student aid but can’t afford to send their children to college. This doesn’t just affect the career prospects of those students, but the economic viability of the state as we move into the future.”
In addition to advocating for increased tax revenue, the GEO supports any legislation that helps to eliminate undue political influence in the granting of scholarships. Currently, the GEO opposes HB 4706, which would strip 50% tuition waivers for children of University employees. “Those waivers often go to first generation college students and expand their career opportunities. Luckily, that bill appears to be dead in the House,” said Mukta Tripathy, a graduate employee and co-chair of the lobbying and legislative action committee. “Instead of cutting those waivers, we’d like to see the legislature pass SB 4702,” which would eliminate General Assembly scholarships.
The unprecedented turn out at this rally overwhelmed the state house with advocates for public education, so the GEO and UGA were only able to talk to a few of the legislators. “We left informational packets in their offices, spoke with a couple of staffers, and made some mostly unsuccessful attempts to call representatives from the House floor,” said Ben Rothschild, a member of the UGA. “It was frustrating,” said Rich Potter, of the GEO. “I do want to thank Rep. Rose, who came off the floor and spoke candidly with us and members of the CFA. He indicated that he won’t support a revenue increase until it’s packaged with spending cuts. I can appreciate his concern for a balanced budget, but I’m not sure there’s time to wait. The University’s reputation for excellence is at risk.” Seawell says the GEO is already planning to follow-up with legislators and continue the GEO’s lobbying efforts.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), AFT/IFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a labor union representing approximately 2700 Teaching and Graduate Assistants on the UIUC Campus. In November 2009, over 1,000 GEO members successfully went on strike to secure a fair contract and more accessible UIUC. With events like lobby day, the GEO continues to work for high quality and accessible public education in Illinois.