Strike at Illinois

If you’re reading this Monday morning, the strike at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has begun, and I’m out taking a look at how the picketing is going outside the buildings where I usually teach.


November 15, 2009

If you’re reading this Monday morning, the strike at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has begun, and I’m out taking a look at how the picketing is going outside the buildings where I usually teach.

After weeks of buildup and planning, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at UIUC announced last Monday, November 9, that 92% of participating GEO members had voted to authorize a strike. The GEO, American Federation of Teachers/Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300, AFL-CIO, represents teaching assistants and graduate assistants on the UIUC campus. With 2,600 members, it claims to be “one of the largest higher education union locals in the United States.”

On Thursday they bussed members to a rally in Springfield outside the Board of Trustees’ meeting and held another on campus, marching from the quad to the Swanlund Administration Building for speeches then marching back.

(Pictures in this post are from that rally. At left, Gwen Rudy, GEO member; middle, below, GEO marchers outside the Swanlund Building; at bottom, GEO member John Warner holds a sign as several hundred others listen to speeches from the front steps.)

The GEO’s literature stated the initial issues like this:

GEO bargaining unit members teach 23.1% of all undergraduate course hours at UIUC, and perform comparably to faculty in official student evaluations of instructor performance as measured by the University of Illinois’ Center for Teaching Excellence. Yet our salaries draw only 6.5% of state funding, including salaries for GAs and Research Assistants, who don’t teach. By contrast, faculty salaries draw over 55% of the University budget. Should graduate employee salaries be set to a living wage, the University would still have a large pool of inexpensive and high quality instructional and administrative labor….

The GEO has been negotiating with UIUC administrators for over six months. The GEO seeks a contract that will set the minimum salary for a 50% nine month appointment at the University’s estimate of a living wage for a graduate student in Urbana-Champaign and protect tuition waivers for TAs and GAs. While the GEO presented the administration with a full contract proposal on the first day of negotiations, the UIUC administration declined to offer a counterproposal until August 11th, just four days before the GEO’s previous contract expired. The UIUC administration’s initial contract proposal sought to freeze GEO wages for three years, reserve the right to furlough and layoff graduate employees in good standing, and to count “in-kind” compensation such as housing or meal vouchers toward the minimum salary mandated in the contract.

The Provost’s office has said:

It is not news that the State of Illinois, and consequently the University of Illinois, face severe budget problems and an uncertain financial future. As Presidents White and Ikenberry shared recently, immediate challenges include the State's lack of capacity to provide the funding for this fiscal year that we are to have received but have not received. More serious yet is the negative effect that State budget shortfalls will have on funding appropriated for the duration of this academic year. Still more serious are the projected effects on the University budget for fiscal year 2011 of the disappearance of federal recovery dollars from our State budget and the further erosion of the State's tax base. Financial planning is now focused on meeting and coping with financial stresses exceeding any the University has encountered for many, many years. Although we have seen welcome increases in research funding, and there have been successes in the advancement campaign, it must be understood that funds from those sources cannot be used for TA salaries….

We value the contributions graduate students make to the University, and we know we are competing nationally and internationally to attract and retain the best and brightest students. The total compensation package offered by the University, which encompasses wages, waiver of most fees, the tuition waiver, and a University of Illinois education, reflects our recognition of the value brought to the University by our excellent graduate students.

All this occurs at a time when money is not only hard to come by across the land but also went in regrettable directions. The GEO says:

The former Chancellor diverted $450,000 of discretionary funds to provide jobs and scholarships for politically well-connected but undeserving applicants. Another $400,000 went to the attorneys who represented the University before the Governor’s investigative committee, and another $550,000 to new faculty appointments for the former President and Chancellor [who resigned after the scandal broke]. In this context, the GEO finds it hard to trust the UIUC administration when it argues that there is not enough money to provide a living wage. From the GEO’s perspective, it appears that budget priorities are simply out of place. When campus revenues rose by 7% in FY 2009, only 0.8% ($2.7 million) went to undergraduate instruction. Meanwhile, the Chief Information Officer’s budget rose by 10.9 percent ($1.6 million), and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics budget increased 6.2 percent ($4.1 million).

The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, housed in the English Department, has on its site an earlier statement from the GEO and the transcript of an address by Michael Verderame, Ph.D. candidate and graduate employee at UIUC, who addressed the Board of Trustees on Thursday at their meeting. Tenure-stream faculty in English sent a statement of support last week to the Chicago Tribune and local media, which read:

We, the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in continuity with resolutions we have passed in previous years, call upon the university administration to bargain in good faith with the Graduate Employees Organization and agree to a contract along the lines that the Graduate Employees Organization has proposed, including the provision for a living wage. We believe that agreeing to such a contract is essential to maintaining and improving undergraduate and graduate education, that it can improve conditions for graduate students, undergraduate students, and faculty, and that it can help the university attract and retain outstanding graduate students. Because graduate workers are indispensable to the core missions of the university, we express our support for the Graduate Employees Organization, including our support for the right of graduate employees to participate in a lawful work action without retaliation.

No doubt this could put departmental administration in a tough spot with the provost’s office if it comes down to having to enforce penalties for work stoppage. While GEO members have the lawful right to strike, they face not being paid for any time they’re not in the classroom. Tenured faculty, of course won’t face reprisals.

But for adjuncts and other employees, such as office staff, the situation is actually much worse, something that the GEO has not been good about confronting—at least for adjuncts—in the buildup to the strike. The Provost’s office writes:

I remind you again that we have an obligation to our students and their families to provide the education which they have sacrificed to attain. Only GEO members have a legal right to strike; all other employees have an obligation to meet the responsibilities of their positions.

Employees who choose not to cross a picket line must request and receive approval (in advance) for vacation time. As always, vacation approval is based on operational need; a unit is not required to approve a vacation request if there are operational needs that would be unmet if the request is approved. Sick leave cannot be utilized to cover strike-related absences. If staff not covered by the GEO contract have unapproved absences during the strike, normal discipline procedures will apply.

Asking adjuncts to fully support the strike—or not to teach TAs' classes if asked at swordpoint by administration to do so—is asking quite a lot. Several years ago when the UIUC GEO was still organizing and had not yet attained union recognition, they asked for and received tremendous support from adjuncts on campus, who thought there might be a possibility of their being included in the proposed bargaining unit. After some time, one of their chief organizers—I believe he was with the AFL—told us we’d have to do our collective bargaining with the campus’s tenure-stream faculty instead, and many believe that ain’t gonna happen. The GEO went on to receive union status, while the Great Adjunct Purges began—the year after our department head told us of a planned, multi-year buildup of our salaries and a professionalization program for us that were in the works, neither of which happened.

I don’t think that what happened back then was political cynicism, just expediency and the nature of labor struggle, and I hold no grudges. Besides, I believe in what the GEO is trying to do, and hypocrisy, as our philosopher friends say, is the only sin. As a result I’m finding ways not to cross picket lines by using alternate meeting places and assignments for my students, so instruction won’t be interrupted. My acquaintance Rory, who’s deeply committed, or should be, is meeting the few students he teaches in the Presidential Room of a sorority house instead of his classroom, and others have similar plans.

There was an eleventh-hour bargaining session held yesterday (Saturday) in a hangar at Willard Airport, several miles outside town. The odd location seems to have been chosen by administration, no doubt in part because it’s Dads’ Weekend here and the location was slightly less accessible to union members. Going by Twitter updates throughout the afternoon and evening, things were going well for compromise, but in the end the two sides failed to reach agreement on one major point.

An e-mail this morning to GEO members read:

The sole reason that the strike committee has called a strike is tuition waiver security. When we voted as GEO members to authorize a strike, one of the most important concerns was tuition waiver security. Since the strike authorization vote, GEO members have indicated that including security for tuition waivers is a top contract priority that should be in any tentative agreement reached by the bargaining team. After the six hour bargaining session Saturday, the bargaining team was able to use a compromise on our wage proposal to get furloughs and scope of the agreement off of the table, but the administration refused to include language that would protect tuition waivers as a benefit of employment for TAs and GAs. Early this morning, the strike committee responded by calling a strike.

Their press release added:

The administration’s refusal to guarantee the continuation of its current tuition waiver practice not only means that the majority of graduate employees could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in additional tuition charges, but also indicates its plans to implement such a change. By making graduate education untenable for all but the most affluent students, the administration is abandoning its responsibility to ensure access to the highest level of public education for all. This is contrary to the University of Illinois’ mission as a public land grant institution. By calling a strike, the Graduate Employees’ Organization is holding the University of Illinois administration accountable to its stated commitment to excellent and accessible higher education.

The latest rumor is that the University of Michigan GEO is coming down to lend support. The next opportunity for negotiation will be on Tuesday of this week, but a GEO representative told me that the strike committee is prepared to be out for four weeks before re-evaluating the situation.


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