Militant Journalism

U. of I. Graduate Employees Organization set to strike Feb. 26

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Contract negotiations passed a breaking point earlier this month as graduate employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign discovered the school administration intends to bust their union .

Teaching assistants and graduate assistants with the Graduate Employees Organization plan to begin a work stoppage on Feb 26 unless they reach an agreement with the administration. They have worked without a contract for over 190 days, seeking terms that include guaranteed raises, better healthcare coverage, reduced academic fees and contractual protections that would continue to guarantee their full tuition waivers.

GEO Grievance Officer, Bargaining Team and Strike Committee member Bruce Kovenan, also an Assistant Director of Rhetoric in the English Department, said their proposed contract terms will directly impact the work conditions and hardships graduate employees are facing.

He said they are seeking “a measure of financial security and stability so we don’t have to live in this precarious situation, wondering how to juggle paying for food, rent and heat bills.

“People should have enough for all of those things and we think that’s what our proposal will do.”

This is not the first time the school’s bargaining team has stalled contract negotiations at length, according to Kovenan. Following their previous strike in 2009, he said the GEO almost began a strike in 2012, but it was pulled at the “11th hour because the administration gave us the tuition waiver language we wanted.”

“It’s always been the throughline, same set of issues we keep returning to,” he said.

This emerging labor battle in Urbana-Champaign is yet another front in the ongoing assault on educators and public sector workers in the U.S. Another began to rise up on Thursday, Feb. 22, as teachers across West Virginia walked off the job for higher wages, in a state where public sector workers have (wrongfully) been stripped of their legal right to strike since the 1990s.

These labor conflicts represent a disturbing trend that’s followed since the defeat of public sector organizing rights in Wisconsin, and is emblematic of the precariousness experienced by many workers under neoliberal capitalism.

Such assaults on the rights of the working class demonstrate the need for all progressive people to stand together and defend representation in the workplace for all workers alike.

A ‘permissive’ subject of bargaining

At a Feb. 7 bargaining session with the GEO and university administrators, school officials signaled their intent to re-designate graduate employee work as an unprotected class of labor.

After holding an early morning rally that was well-attended by GEO members, Kovenan said they entered the bargaining room and university administrators had the mediator pass on a message regarding tuition waivers.

“The mediator came in and said that the university position was shifting and they were considering the tuition side letter part of our contract as a permissive subject of bargaining,” he said. In labor terminology, a mandatory subject would include monetary items, while permissive subjects include policies of non-discrimination and bereavement leave, according to Kovenan.

By alleging that tuition waivers are a permissive subject of bargaining, they are pushing an unfounded claim that graduate students cannot legally strike over them. In a press release following the meeting, the GEO asserted that two legally binding arbitration decisions uphold the waivers as a mandatory subject of bargaining, and legal to strike over. A separate blog post on stated their union believes their tuition waivers are a substantial part of the compensation package guaranteed by their contract.

Kovenan also said in previous negotiations the administration had proposed a new side letter that would give administration, in their terms, more “flexibility” to assign different types of tuition waivers. Currently, graduate employees protected by their union receive full tuition waivers, which Kovenan said have been very successful in expanding access to grad programs.

Now, the university administration is seeking to grant base-rate waivers, he said, which would only cover the in-state portion.

“If you’re an out-of-state graduate employee and you have a base rate waiver, they would take the out-of-state tuition and subtract the in-state portion, and you pay whatever’s left,” he continued. “If this were to stand, it would shut off access to grad education except for the super-rich. Only people who could afford the tuition would then enter into grad school.”

A previous attempt by the UIUC administration to re-designate two programs as “self-sufficient,” forcing affected graduate employees to seek waivers from other departments, was successfully grieved by the GEO. As a result, the university was forced to pay out over $1 million to graduate students as part of two separate legal arbitrations regarding those grievances.

The administration’s desire to undercut tuition waiver benefits for graduate employees shows how disposable they consider their graduate employees, despite the fact that the quality of instruction would surely decline by refusing to provide full waivers to all who perform graduate labor.

“We have to pay to work here”

Graduate employees such as Kovenan believe the the university administration wants to make their TAs and GAs “employees when it benefits them and students when it benefits them.” While some fees are currently waived for grad employees, many that are not, Kovenan said,  amounting up to $450 per semester.

“Our position is that if other employees don’t pay the fees, why should we?” he said.

“For them, it’s a selective definition of sometimes you’re an employee, sometimes you’re a student, and they flip back and work that to their benefit.”

Kovenan said they hope to greatly reduce fees, which can tough for students to pay. “What it often amounts to is that we have to pay to work here,” he said, “because if we don’t pay the fees, we’re not in good student standing, we can’t register for classes and we can’t be employees.” Kovenan said the administration “has not budged” on the fees.

By leaving graduate students on the hook for these costs, the university administration is holding graduate labor captive to their financial whims, or else they’ll become shut off from their means of survival and educational opportunities.

Although workloads differ between graduate employees based on their department and appointment offer, Kovenan said their employees working a 50
percent appointment level, or roughly 20 hours a week, would need a raise of 30 percent to meet the university’s published living wage for the area .

“People at the minimum [appointment level] are far below that standard,” he continued, adding they have to live a life in precarity. According to the Grievance Officer, employees working at that minimum are compensated just $17,000 a year. Minor unexpected expenses for people, Kovenan said, can be financially ruinous.

He also said it’s especially hard during the summer months when they are not being paid, since it can be tough to find alternative employment. That can be impossible for international graduate employees, who cannot legally take on additional work due to their visa requirements, Kovenan said.

Olga, a second-year graduate assistant and GEO member, said she wouldn’t have ever started her “long journey” towards a Ph.D. if it weren’t for tuition waivers. “We need it to be protected,” she said, “We need it to be guaranteed and not just you know, ‘maybe you have it, maybe you’ll not.’”

As an international student who cannot take work outside of the university, she said, “If wages aren’t adequate to the standard of living, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bill, get food and survive.”

“I think it’s great that now because of the GEO, that the deadline (for the fees) is after the first paycheck”,” she added.

Healthy teachers, healthy lessons

Another issue during the summertime, according to Kovenan, is that graduate employees are completely without insurance coverage, unless they can pay for all of it. “A lot of people hope they don’t get sick just because they cant afford it,” he continued.

“It’s almost $500 just to have it,” Kovenan said. “When you’re making like $1500-$1700 a month, trying to find money for that can be tough.”

According to the Bargaining Team members, one of the union’s goals is to increase the percentage of healthcare costs the university covers for graduate employees, which is currently set in the mid 80s. Yet, he added student insurance rates saw a 25 percent hike last year.

He said that it can be like “trying to make an impossible decision” between seeing a doctor and waiting it out.

All the while, he said that Graduate Employees really just want to be in the classroom, but at the same time they’re thinking about their own health. “They feel like they need to come in regardless of how they’re feeling, and it can be a struggle and try to get by and work through it, in ways we shouldn’t have to ask anyone to do, Kovenan said. “It happens often.”

Without financial stability, Kovenan is concerned that the quality of instruction might be adversely affected.

“Our labor conditions are students’ learning conditions,” he said. “A TA who makes a living wage is able to focus on their class. “Rather than thinking about ‘how am I gonna find lunch?’ they can think about classes they’re working on.

“They’re not thinking about funding on their jobs, they’re focused on being the best teacher they can be.”

When they’re not in the classroom, Kovenan said teaching assistants need to focus their time on planning courses, a syllabus for the next semester, reading choices, and researching different kinds of textbooks.

“It’s difficult to do that well when there are all these things on our minds, and we’re thinking about survival and not having that sense of security.”

He said the experience of teaching is the highlight of his profession, and many of his co-workers find it very fulfilling.

Olga said her experience teaching last year was very rewarding, but added the work can be very energy consuming while trying to handle her own graduate course workload.

“It also helps me to be more engaged, not that I do a lot, but I have time and energy to attend GEO meetings and learn more about it,” she said, “and appreciate that there is a union that cares about me and that wants best for me.”

Kovenan said they’ve dispersed a list of resources out to their members for where they can acquire free meals on campus, if they’re facing food insecurity. He also knows of some graduate employees who’ve utilized the plasma collection center on Green Street for some extra cash.

Some members, he said, have talked about strategically “banking” their individual counseling sessions, which are limited to just six in a student’s entire tenure at UIUC. After that, Kovanen said students are referred to another provider they may not be able to afford, or a group therapy session that meets only once a week.

In a just society, no worker should ever have to hesitate from seeking medical care or mental health services. Through their refusal to provide these basic necessities of survival, the administration has demonstrated how detached they’ve become from the material working conditions of their graduate labor.

Administrative spin

University officials have issued a statement to all students and faculty claiming that they don’t plan on getting rid of tuition waivers, which Kovanan characterized as misleading.

A campus wide ‘massmail’ sent Feb. 2 from the administration stated, “Graduate students who maintain good academic standing and continue to make appropriate progress towards their degree will continue to remain eligible to receive tuition waiver-generating assistantships.”

However, “eligibility” does not guarantee graduate employees will continue to receive tuition as they have been. “That word, ‘eligibility,’ is doing a lot of work there,” Kovenan said. “I’m old enough to buy a lotto ticket, so I’m eligible to win the lotto.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to win it every time I buy a ticket.”

Under the administration’s proposed side-letter language regarding tuition, a university department could provide tuition waivers to only half of their teaching or graduate assistant positions. That could mean a situation for employees, Kovenan said, where “even if you are doing the work of the bargaining unit, it no longer means you have the same guarantee of a tuition waiver.”

By offering full tuition waiver appointments to some and not others, who still provide graduate labor, the university will create a system where grad students will have to compete with each other for full tuition waiver generating appointments. Some graduate employees have compared it to the “Hunger Games.”

Also in a Feb. 8 Chicago Tribune article, a official spokesperson for the university said in a statement it was not sustainable for them to have no ability to amend their tuition waiver system for future “budgetary and programming” reasons. Meanwhile, the same university also reportedly plans to spend $248 million on the largest renovation ever of the Illini Union, and has increased salaries for their top administration and the athletics department.

Although the university has pointed to decreased state funding as the cause of their financial problems, increased revenue collected by tuition and fees has certainly eclipsed those losses. From 2005-2015, those revenues went up by $668 million, during which time state funding dropped only $36 million, according to a statement posted on

UIUC’s published salary data for 2017-2018 lists the 10 highest paid university employees as all receiving more than $500,000 a year each. The football and basketball head coaches take in a grand total of $5.75 million between the two of them.

University officials have shown through their actions that they value administrative payroll and the aesthetics of their real estate properties more than the economic and material needs of their graduate laborers. Their reluctance to provide graduate employees with sufficient compensation and medical care services is grotesque and disgraceful—considering these instructors and assistants sustain the school’s most critical operations. It manifests the inherent class divide between the higher echelons of the administration and those who provide the essential labor that enables this massive institution to function.

Through stalling the bargaining process, Kovenan said the administration’s playbook has always been the same, and they’ve done the same with all the other labor units on campus.

“They stall, and make bargaining take as long as possible,” he said. “They’re betting on us wearing out, because we’re all volunteers.”

The university’s attitude towards the graduate employee’s union has been repeated time and time again, previously with the GEO in 2009 and 2012 and then the Service Employee’s International Union Local #73 in 2013. Last year, faculty at the University of Illinois at Springfield also went on strike for a day.

The University of Illinois administration has failed time and time again to learn past lessons from prior disagreements with their laborers. Such vain and greedy labor policies cannot be allowed to gain foothold in a behemoth of an academic institution that employs and educates so many.

GEO members and their allies are now mobilizing for a work stoppage, and are hopeful they will be victorious, as they have been in their past struggles with the administration. Starting next Feb. 26, critical university instruction and operations may cease, unless an agreement has been made. GEO Co-Presidents Gus Wood and Marilia Correa stated the following in a Feb. 19 blog post:

“This will be a strike for our very survival as a union and some of our members’ ability to attend this university. These stakes are not hyperbolic; rather, they portray a dire situation that could transform both the University of Illinois and U.S. higher education as we know it.”

Those wishing to show support for the GEO’s efforts can do so by signing an online petition at this link or by joining them on the picket lines at the UIUC campus, should the strike take place. 

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