‘We make poverty wages and we wanted more’: Chicago grad students strike, win major gains

After a strike that started to head into finals week, Graduate Employees Organization – American Federation of Teachers Local 6297 at the University of Illinois at Chicago won a tentative agreement, including over $24,000 in wages by the end of their contract, $2,000 in retroactive pay for the last year, supportive measures for survivors, bereavement and maternity leave, and strike pay.

On April 1, GEO AFT Local 6297 announced their 97% percent strike authorization vote approved with a 75% turnout. The union’s 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants across 59 departments at UIC had been negotiating since April 12, 2021, for a new contract. 

GEO began their second strike in three years on April 18 for a fair contract, citing low pay, excessive fees, and lack of protection from harassment and discrimination as major issues. 

“We make poverty wages and we wanted more. This last year our wages were around $20,600. All of us know people who’ve had to suffer under this poverty, work second or third jobs, at the expense of their own studying or teaching,” Matthew DeVilbiss, Teaching Assistant and GEO Organizing Chair, told Liberation News

The UIC community has shown an outpouring of support for the strike, with over 9,000 students, faculty, staff, and broader community members signing onto a letter in support. DeVilbiss continued, “The undergrads understand our work at the university — and it’s therefore at the expense of the stated purpose of the university that both our ability to educate and do research suffer.”

On April 20, the Party for Socialism and Liberation joined GEO on the picket line. Graduate student workers shared how the university levies up to $2,000 of annual fees from their salary despite some salaries being as low as $20,615. A graduate worker in the English Department, Margo Arruda shared, “I spent my entire paycheck on insulin pump supplies last month …”

Fees and wages were not the only point where bargaining had stalled. GEO had also demanded that victims of discrimination, harassment, workplace bullying and sexual assault have supportive processes to handle cases outside of the university’s institutions where the university is more interested in protecting itself than supporting survivors. The tentative agreement won by GEO includes provisions for union representation in filing complaints and requesting supportive measures, greater autonomy over whether reports are filed with the Office of Access and Equity, protections against retaliation and expanded definitions of harassment and bullying — which members say is common in a number of departments.

“Survivors can ask for supportive measures with union representation, like accommodations to move your office or change your teaching assignment, without going through the re-traumatizing experience of going through the university. We also won protective pay for those receiving these supportive measures and survivors don’t have to file a police report to receive them,” explained DeVilbiss.

Notably, the tentative agreement also includes language guaranteeing tuition and fee waivers, as well as leaves and holidays. DeVilbiss told Liberation News, “Throughout our 2019 strike and throughout bargaining, it was the university’s understanding that they can increase fees without negotiating. The fear was that they could increase these fees.” Fees are just another way the university tries to effectively decrease student workers wages and increase their profits. 

International students have to pay additional fees and are ineligible for most aid programs. Their visas strictly limit which supplemental employment they can take on to help supplement their low wages. “As international students we can’t work over 20 hours or outside campus to supplement our income and don’t have access to loans,” explained Natalia Ruiz Vargas, a TA and PhD student in the Biological Sciences department, in a GEO press release on April 15.

Winning caps on these student fees is a huge victory, and in their tentative agreement GEO won a 50% waiver and freeze for the international fee inside the body of the agreement language along with the right to bargain when the university tries to increase the general fee over $25 per semester. Teaching and graduate assistants also won three more sick days to have a total of five per semester and protections against supervisors informally discouraging them from taking sick days. Bereavement leave also got extended from three days to five days.

Another victory for the student workers was stopping any increase in the cost of health insurance for the first year, and a 25% reduction in the cost of dependent coverage for all dependents. And one of the biggest victories was winning six weeks of parental leave, up from only two weeks. DeVilbiss told Liberation News about a member who is five months pregnant and due in the fall who was planning on having to give up her TA-ship for the entire fall semester. Now with the six weeks of parental leave, GEO members who are pregnant won’t be forced to give up their jobs and not have any income for a semester.

Anish Chedalavada, a graduate student and union steward in the math department at UIC, told Liberation News, “It’s I believe the best [tentative agreement] we’ve ever won, and we got a lot of movement from where the admin was initially at.”

Chedalavada went on to share that it was really collective worker action, alongside a great bargaining committee, that pushed the university to make these concessions to the student workers. “Bargaining had been going on the entire year prior and while we made some progress towards parental and bereavement leave, it wasn’t until we started threatening action that we started to see bigger changes.”

As their strike started to head into its second week, which was also finals week, the university administration felt the pressure and moved on a number of the union’s key demands, according to DeVilbiss. The tentative agreement includes strike pay so that the wages that workers sacrificed while on strike will now be paid back by the university. 

GEO members are currently voting on ratifying their tentative agreement with UIC, so it will be known in the upcoming days if this agreement will become their contract. When asked what their next campaign will be, DeVilbiss told Liberation News, “What’s next is that we are going to unionize research assistants! It was recently passed by the State of Illinois that research assistants can be unionized, so that’s what’s next!”

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