The GEO has been organizing since the early 1990s for democracy in the workplace, better education, increased stipends, better benefits, and other changes to make life as a Teaching, Research, or Graduate Assistant better.
Graduate employees have been organizing at the University of Illinois since the early 1970s when a group called the Assistants Union first worked to improve working conditions. In the late 1980s the Graduate Employees’ Organization got together to give voice to graduate assistant concerns over issues such as salaries, workload, and healthcare, as well as a perceived lack of campus parking. An early victory came when the GEO convinced the administration to delay payment of student fees until the first payday. Previously we had to pay by the regular deadline, which was often a financial strain for graduate employees. After initial success, this early GEO became inactive.
In the fall of 1993, a new crop of graduate employees began building an active organization with the goal of matching the achievements of unions at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. A steering committee researched working conditions and benefits for grad employees at the U of I and at peer institutions. In the spring of 1994 the GEO successfully rallied grads against the administration’s plan to stop issuing staff ID cards to assistants. With the ID cards assistants were able to retain many benefits such as staff parking, access to the Illini Credit Union, and discounts as state of Illinois employees.
During the 1994-95 academic year, the GEO grew and changed significantly. A lively organizing committee helped increase membership. In the spring of 1995, the GEO conducted a survey of assistants which showed strong support for unionization, as well as confirming the desire for improvements in healthcare and a new grievance procedure. Also in the spring of 1995, after much research and discussion, GEO affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, joining over 70,000 Illinois educators in that organization. During the summer of 1995, along with other graduate employee unions in the American Federation of Teachers, we formed the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals (AGEL).
In the fall of 1995, GEO members began a drive to gather signatures for a petition for a union election. The “card drive”–so named for the “authorization cards” we asked grads to sign as part of the petition — required the efforts of literally hundreds of GEO rank-and-file activists. Whether “talking union” with their co-workers, volunteering their Wednesday evenings to put out mass mailings, or standing on campus appealing to passing strangers (“Are you a grad assistant?”), member-organizers from every department made success a reality.
GEO organizers sign-up new members at a table set up in the lobby of a university building.
Of course, the administration helped out, too, by announcing plans to radically restructure the tuition waiver program and to end guaranteed full tuition waivers for future graduate employees. The crisis showed the usefulness of organization: the GEO was able to inform grad assistants about the changes, funnel their concerns to the administration, and build a coalition of graduate groups to oppose the changes. We also discovered the limits of our present organization. We got the administration to drop the most outrageous elements of their plan, but without a contract we could do nothing to stop most of the changes. A similar situation occurred with respect to healthcare. The GEO helped to secure improvements in healthcare and dental benefits, but these real changes in the benefits were minimal, and came from our raise pool. With these lessons in mind, graduate assistants signed on to the union effort in increasing numbers.
By April of 1996 3,226 graduate assistants had signed cards in support of the GEO’s call for a union election. The GEO filed these cards as a petition with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) to request a union election. Instead of agreeing to an election, the administration chose to fight us in court arguing that graduate employees are students and therefore not covered by the Labor Act.
While the legal case wound its way slowly through hearings before an administrative law judge and later the full IELRB, graduate employees mobilized to demonstrate their desire for a union. In the spring of 1997, graduate employees chose GEO as their union representative with 64% of the vote. The election was overseen by a local group of ministers and lay workers. The university administration refused to recognize the results of that election, and rebuffed repeated efforts to engage them in dialogue during the fall of 1997.
GEO History Steward Toby Higbie testifies before the Illinois State House of Representatives’ Labor Committee concerning House Bill 1208. With him are the bill’s sponsor Rep. Todd Stroger and IFT Legislative Director Karen Williams.
Then in February of 1998 the GEO received the bad news that two of the three members of the Labor Board ruled that while student status did not constitute an explicit exclusion from the act, the work of graduate employees was so deeply intertwined with their education that their jobs were primarily educational. The dissenting opinion in that case argued that TAs and GAs are employees. The GEO immediately appealed the case to the Illinois Court of Appeals.
In April of 1998 the GEO held its first “Work-In,” a massive event that brought over 400 graduate employees to the Henry Administration Building to teach classes, grade papers, and educate the public about the goals of the GEO. Over the course of the next year we worked on passing legislation affirming graduate employees’ collective bargaining rights and in March of 1999 our bill passed the lower house of the General Assembly with bipartisan support. Due to the lobbying of the university administration the bill was buried in the Senate Rules Committee and never came to a vote.
By that point, the GEO had pursued every established channel to win the right to represent ourselves. We were totally shut out of university decision-making. Repeated efforts to engage the administration in dialogue failed. Our members had even been denied the chance to sit on university committees dealing with employment issues and benefits.
But the tide was already turning in our direction. Two major legal decisions in the National Labor Relations Board cleared the way for student employees in the private sector to unionize. These cases didn?t necessarily set precedent for Illinois, but they didn?t hurt either. Meanwhile, the demise of House Bill 1208 sparked a new round of activism by graduate employees and more statements of support from the community.
/table>In early March a student referendum (sponsored by the Illinois Student Government) in support of graduate employees’ right to union representation passed by a 77% margin. At the end of March, 55 graduate employees and supporters (including clergy, union members, and student government leaders) held a 20-hour sit-in at the Board of Trustees office to draw public attention to the administration’s policy of non-recognition. Outside of the sit-in 200 supporters held rally in the afternoon, while about 50 braved the cold night air to stand in support of the action. Ten days later we held our largest-ever membership meeting.On June 30, 2000 the Illinois Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, overturned the IELRB’s decision to deny graduate employees the right to choose union recognition. Calling the Labor Board’s decision “clearly erroneous” and based on an “overly simplistic interpretation” of Illinois educational labor law, the Court sent the case back to the Board for reconsideration. They must now allow “those individuals whose assistantships are not significantly connected to their status as students … the same statutory right to organize as other educational employees.” This decision opens the door for what graduate employees have wanted for so long — to exercise their democratic right to choose the GEO as their representative.This decision was reaffirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on October 4, 2000 when they rejected the university administration’s appeal. We are now gearing up for an election where graduate employees will have the chance to vote for the GEO and begin negotiations with the administration for a contract.The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) approved preliminary guidelines for who will be allowed to vote in an upcoming union election for graduate employees at the University of Illinois. Their decision excluded virtually all of the Teaching, Research, and Graduate Assistants on the Urbana-Champaign campus.The IELRB’s decision denied the right to vote in a union election to all graduate students employed as teachers or researchers, as well as those assistants whose employment duties overlap with their academic “discipline”–a category suggested by the University of Illinois administration. Of the U of I’s approximately 5,200 grad employees, some 95% would be denied the ability to vote in a union election.In response to the IELRB decision, the GEO membership voted to hold a two-day work stoppage in the Fall of 2001. On November 28th and 29th, over 350 graduate employees in Gregory Hall, Lincoln Hall, English Building, Davenport Hall, and the Foreign Languages Building walked off the job. 70% of TAs in the target buildings took part, and 8-10,000 students were affected each day. Hundreds of GEO members and supporters picketed, chanted, and sang in the cold and rain on the Quad and around main administration buildings. The GEO was supported by a resolution in the Illinois House of Representatives, calling on the Administration to bargain with graduate employees. The GEO also had support from numerous groups throughout the community as well as the GEO at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, who occupied the UIC Chancellor’s office to show solidarity with our actions in Champaign-Urbana.Despite the success of the work stoppage, the position of the UI Administration remained unchanged. Therefore, at the first membership meeting of 2002, GEO members authorized further actions, including work stoppages and the possibility of more other disruptive actions for later in the semester.The GEO had already scheduled a three-day strike for the second week of April when on March 13, 2002 nearly 50 members and supporters of the GEO entered and occupied the Swanlund Administration Building. Beginning at 7:45 A.M. GEO members stood in all the entrances to prevent any University employees from entering the building. The building, which normally holds 100+ employees, was completely closed down by this action.The action was timed to coincide with the arrival of the Board of Trustees to the Urbana-Champaign campus for a two-day meeting. GEO members were determined to stay until the administration agreed to begin negotiations with them over an out-of-court settlement to the now seven-year battle or until they were arrested. Bowing to the pressure of the sit-in and the upcoming walkout, University of Illinois officials reversed their long-standing policy of refusing to negotiate with the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO). Provost Herman, accompanied by Deputy University Legal Counsel Steve Veazie, conceded to a series of ongoing meetings with GEO representatives to determine which graduate employees would be eligible to vote in a union election and covered by a union contract. (Click here for the full text of the March 13 agreement.)As a result of the March 13th agreement, the University agreed to a series of negotiations to determine the scope of the bargaining unit. The GEO bargaining team advocated that all graduate employees (RAs, TAs, and GAs) be included in bargaining unit. However, the University argued that most grad employees should be excluded from collective bargaining.
Weary of the University of Illinois? slow movement, graduate employees continued organizing toward a 3 day strike in mid-April. During the weeks up to the planned strike, the GEO notified the University that a report on negotiations would be given to the membership before graduate employees voted to continue with the plan to strike. After weeks of intense and lengthy negotiations, the University finally presented a revised proposal concerning bargaining unit membership. The day before the strike, the University agreed that almost all TAs and GAs be included in the bargaining unit. However, the University still did not agree that RAs have a right to collectively bargain.
At the membership meeting the day before the strike, GEO members greeted the University?s proposal with excitement. Many were disappointed by the University?s position concerning RAs, but in general members agreed that this proposal was an immense victory. After nearly seven weeks of negotiations, the GEO and the University came to an agreement on the composition of the bargaining unit.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2002, the GEO prepared for a union election. As part of the election drive, community organizations, churches, local labor unions, legislators and community leaders signed on to a letter to the University of Illinois asking that the University to remain neutral on the issue of whether employees should be represented collectively. The letter argued that union representation is a personal decision for employees and the letter specifically asked that the University of Illinois sign a pledge not to intimidate, harass or influence the union election.
After the University refused to sign the pledge, the GEO organized a “free and fair election rally” on the steps of the Swanlund Administration Building to publicly encourage the University to sign the pledge. The University continued its silence.
Having defined a large bargaining unit, the GEO urged the labor board to schedule the union election for Spring 2003. The GEO supported a spring election for two reasons: 1. A spring election would give TAs an adequate time to evaluate union representation and 2. TAs excluded from the bargaining unit in their 1st semester would be eligible to vote. This would have allowed Chemistry, Biological Sciences, German, and Psychology graduate employees to vote in the union election. The University disagreed and the labor board scheduled the election for the week before fall finals: December 3-4, 2002.
With only a month?s notice of the election date, the GEO initiated an intense organizing drive. Hundreds of graduate employees and labor volunteers talked with the over 2,500 TAs and GAs eligible to vote in the election. Despite the poor timing of the election, on December 3-4, 2002 over half of the eligible employees participated in the election. Graduate employees overwhelmingly voted for GEO to represent them at the bargaining table by a 3 to 1 margin (1188 to 347).As a newly officially recognized union, the GEO elected an official bargaining team and voted on a bargaining platform in February, 2003. GEO members elected Rosemary Braun (RA in Physics) as chief negotiator and consciously elected RAs to demonstrate that the GEO advocates for all graduate employees regardless of employment status.Rather than easing into initial negotiations, the GEO again had to fight for an inclusive and transparent process. The University fought for closed-door negotiation meetings and argued that RAs should not be allowed at the negotiating table. The GEO did not back down from its position that all employees have a right to attend and participate in meetings and the University finally conceded to open and inclusive meetings.As negotiations proceeded throughout the spring and the fall, the GEO expanded its membership and developed a stronger organizing infrastructure. Physics and Computer Science tripled their membership and participation while historically strong departments developed stronger communication networks.
Over the summer in 2003, GEO negotiated a 3% raise for Fall 2003-2004, breaking a two-year wage freeze. Additionally, the University agreed to provide a dental and vision plan for graduate employees. These were major victories that set a strong precedent for future negotiations.Over 2003-2004, the GEO and the University continued negotiations that set the groundwork for the GEO?s first contract . In August 2004, GEO members ratified the first contract by a 98% margin (610 YES 10 NO). The contract guaranteed 3% wage increases per year, elimination of the McKinley clinic fee, and a phased reduction of medical insurance premiums. In addition, the GEO successfully negotiated a series of employee protections, including a grievance procedure with 3rd-party binding arbitration, a non-discrimination clause, and Fair Share, which allows the union to more effectively bargain with the university and enforce the contract.
Over the course of 2004-2006, the GEO focused on streamlining the grievance process and advocating for better healthcare for grads and their dependents. As the first contract expired in August 2006, grads returned to the bargaining table hoping to focus on healthcare. Negotiations went slowly, but grads with the help of our fellow workers on campus put pressure on the University and by Spring 2007 the GEO ratified an improved contract for 2006-2008 with back-pay and a greater subsidy of graduate healthcare and wages.In 2007-2008 the GEO focused on building membership and developing stronger relationships with community organizations and campus labor groups. In Fall 2007 we supported campus building and food service workers union SEIU in their negotiation for pay equity and greater worker protections. In Spring 2008 we hosted the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals (AGEL) conference. Representatives from GEO-University of Michigan, TAA-University of Wisconsin, GTFF- University of Oregon, GAU-University of Florida and other graduate employee unions joined us to discuss national organizing strategies, how to build local coalitions, and developing membership.
Approaching Fall 2008 the GEO is preparing for the next contract cycle. The current contract expires in August 2009, but we hope to begin negotiations in the spring. Ultimately winning a strong third contract will require the support of all graduate employees. Volunteers are needed to visit grads in their offices, research healthcare issues, work with other graduate employee unions on international student visa reform and much more.
If you have questions about the GEO or want to know how you can get involved, please contact the GEO office at 344-8283 or at geo(AT)uigeo.org.
GEO members and supporters rally outside the Henry Administration Building following the Spring 2000 sit-in.
Led by GEO Co-President Uma Pimplaskar, members of the GEO picket in front of Lincoln Hall during the Fall 2001 2-day walk out.
Provost Richard Herman (holding paper) and University Legal Counsel Steve Veazie (white shirt on right) present a proposal to GEO members occupying the Swanlund Administration Building during the sit-in of March 13, 2002. The administration agreed to enter into talks to reach an out-of-court settlement to the ongoing legal battle over collective bargaining rights for graduate employees.
Our negotiators and observers at the April 1, 2003 session
Members of the GEO picket outside a bargaining session Fall 2003
Counting Ratification Ballots