Graduate Employees Organization Demands Recognition of the Right to Union Representation
CHAMPAIGN/URBANA – – Demanding that university leaders meet with them, fifty graduate employees, along with supporters from the faculty, student government, local clergy and others from the Champaign-Urbana community have occupied the offices of the Board of Trustees in the Henry Administration Building. Graduate employees and their supporters sat down on the floors of offices inside the building, while many others rallied outside.
Co-President of the Graduate Employees Organization Storm Heter said, “The University has left us with few options. Graduate employees have demonstrated time and again their desire to choose their own representatives. President Stukel and Chancellor Aiken refuse to meet with our union, and they have refused to allow union members to serve on university committees dealing with employment issues.” Added Heter, “With this kind of record, it is no surprise that graduate employees feel they need a union.”
In 1996, over 3,200 graduate employees requested a union representation election. The following year, GEO won an election by a 64 percent margin. In 1999, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill granting graduate employees union rights. The bill died in the Senate without a floor vote due to the vigorous opposition of the university administration. This month, a referendum sponsored by the Illinois Student Government supporting graduate employee unionization passed by a 77 percent margin.
The University of Illinois employs 5,000 graduate employees who teach classes, perform administrative functions, advise students, grade papers and conduct research. Without a union, graduate employees have no input into university policies related to their employment and are unable to negotiate salaries and benefits. For most graduate employees, their university salary is their only source of income, many support families on their university paycheck, and most international graduate employees are barred by visa restrictions from taking on any other employment.
Illinois labor law is ambiguous about the status of graduate employees. However, in most other states, graduate employees have the right to form unions. Graduate employees are represented by unions at the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of Kansas, University of Oregon, Oregon State, University of California, Wayne State, State University of New York, City University of New York, University of Iowa and Rutgers, to name only a few. A decision yesterday by the National Labor Relations Board affirmed the right of Teaching Assistants to unionize in the private sector. There are organizing drives underway at Yale and New York University.
GEO Spokesperson Theresa Ferguson said, “Some people will say a sit-in is a throwback to the 1960s. But they’re wrong, this is reminiscent of the 1930s. Just as workers in the 1930s had to stage “sit down” strikes to get their employers to recognize the right to unionize, we find it necessary to occupy our employer’s place of business to get their attention.”
GEO is an affiliate of the 80,000 -member Illinois Federation of Teachers and its national organization, the million-member American Federation of Teachers. AFT represents more higher education faculty and graduate employees than any other union.