Strike Begins at Illinois

November 17, 2009

As graduate teaching assistants formed picket lines on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus Monday, administrators tried to assuage concerns that the university is maneuvering to end tuition waivers.

The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, commenced a strike Monday after contract negotiations broke down over a single issue. The GEO, which represents about 2,700 student employees, agreed to strike when administrators rejected a demand for more robust protections of tuition waivers. The university put forward its own language on the issue, but GEO leaders said it fell short of ensuring that waivers for out of state students would be retained.

“We think there is an intention to arbitrarily change [waiver awards] in the future, because we don’t see any other reason for reluctance to sign on to a zero cost proposal,” said Peter Campbell, GEO communications officer and a member of the strike committee.

Campbell speculated that as many as 1,000 members were actively participating in the strike Monday, but noted that the union "can't force" members to withhold labor. Even if just one-third of the bargaining unit participated, however, the strike could affect hundreds of classes, he said. About 23 percent of all undergraduate course hours are taught by people in the bargaining unit, Campbell said.

University officials said Monday that they could not be sure how many classes had been canceled due to the strike, but that they had made efforts to combine sections to minimize the impact on students. Some classes also moved locations so professors would not have to cross picket lines.

“The bulk of classes on campus are continuing as normal, [but] I’m sure there are some classes that just won’t meet,” said Robin Kaler, a university spokeswoman.

The sticking point in the negotiations was a “side letter" proposed by the GEO to amend the contract, requiring the university to bargain in the event of “any changes in the tuition waivers of any bargaining unit member or members.” The university rejected that language, opting instead to agree to bargain any changes in “tuition waiver policy” made by the Board of Trustees. While the differences in proposed language may sound like semantics, union officials note that the trustees' policy relates only to in-state tuition waivers. That gave rise to speculation that administrators want more flexibility to change out-of state waivers, something university officials deny.

Richard Wheeler, Illinois’s vice provost, said the university never intended to revoke waivers or change the practice of offering them. The union’s language was so broad, however, that it would have required administrators to engage in bargaining any time they revoked the waiver of a teaching assistant who was not in good academic standing or failing to fulfill teaching obligations, Wheeler said.

“It’s a non-issue that has somehow become a very hot issue,” he said.

In response to concerns across the campus, the university’s provost and interim chancellor worked Monday to reaffirm the university’s commitment to waivers.

“Graduate students with assistantships will not have their tuition waivers reduced while they hold qualifying assistantships, are in good academic standing, and are making proper progress toward graduation in the program in which they began,” Robert Easter wrote in an e-mail to faculty, students and staff. “This commitment is consistent with our long-standing and ongoing university practice.”

If the university’s sole concern is retaining the authority to strip waivers from graduate students who fail to live up to their obligations, there is no reason the contract can’t be resolved, according to Campbell.

“We discussed this issue extensively and they did not tell us this was a problem with the language,” he said. “If that’s their issue then they should be able to negotiate with our bargaining team. I wish this was the conversation we’d had on Saturday.”

Bargaining is slated to resume today.

Debate Reflects Fiscal Environment

It is a sign of the difficult economic times that unions and universities are now at loggerheads over an issue like tuition waivers, which are benefits so intrinsic to public research universities that they’ve taken on the status of “common law rights,” according to Richard Boris, director of National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. Other seemingly sacrosanct benefits may also come under scrutiny as universities run out of federal stimulus dollars and have to consider even larger budget cuts, Boris said.

“That shows the real critical nature that the academy is facing in these times,” he said. “And when the federal monies begin to disappear in 16 months, we will see this as only a prelude unless the economy revives. It’s a very difficult time to negotiate.”

The tough negotiations between graduate students and administrators at Illinois also illustrate a growing willingness on the part of students to fight for more rights, Boris said. Graduate students have witnessed increased activism on the part of adjunct or contingent faculty, and they’re following that lead, he said.

“Such confrontation is perhaps inevitable given the times and given the stakes and given what clearly are the feelings on the part of the graduate students that an historical right has been subtracted from them,” Boris said.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said he was concerned that administrators are poised to chip away at the tuition waiver benefit, despite assurances to the contrary. Nelson, an English professor at Illinois, said he feared changes in waiver policy would “change the nature of the university” and unfairly disadvantage out-of-state and international students.

“I don’t want just Illinois grad students,” he said. “I want them from around the country and around the world.”

Similar skepticism was voiced by Catherine Prendergast, director of the university’s undergraduate rhetoric program. In an e-mail to Easter, the provost and interim chancellor, Prendergast said, “I think the GEO's version of the language on tuition waivers is by far clearer than what the university has proposed, and should be accepted. Please invest in this university: Approve the GEO contract.”

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