In an historic union representation election this week, graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chose the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO/IFT/AFT/AFL-CIO) as their representative in contract negotiations by a margin in excess of 3:1 (1188 votes in favor, 347 against). The vote was the first of its kind for graduate employees in the state of Illinois.
Formal recognition of the GEO as a collective bargaining representative gives graduate employees an official means by which to affect change. “We’re very excited to have a powerful, recognized voice at the University of Illinois,” said GEO Co-President Allan Borst. “This enables us to gain better healthcare, wages and workloads, and to protect them in writing. We’re anxious to start bargaining our first contract.”
GEO supporters came out to vote despite the frosty December air and the hectic time of year. “The timing of this election, which was set by the labor board at the university’s urging, is certainly difficult for grads, who are preparing for their own finals and those of their students,” said GEO Co-President Rosemary Braun. “Despite the hardship, our supporters took the time to vote.”
The GEO has been working toward improving the working conditions of graduate employees for nearly a decade. The long struggle towards union recognition makes the outcome of the election particularly satisfying. “This election, and this victory, came about as a result of years of activists’ work,” said long-time GEO activist Kate Bullard. “The effort which so many grads have put into this, even knowing that they may not be around to enjoy the fruits of their hard work, demonstrates how strongly grads feel that they need a union.”
“This overwhelming victory is the latest demonstration of graduate employee solidarity. Now we will have direct input into the decisions which affect our lives,” said Braun. “It’s an important step towards a more democratic university.”
The GEO is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 15,000 graduate employees nation-wide. Graduate employees at other campuses have enjoyed union representation for over thirty years. The GEO is part of a growing movement toward graduate employee representation which has succeeded at over 35 campuses.