By Damien Mathew
CHAMPAIGN - The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been engaged in a hard fought struggle to establish adequate compensation for its members. GEO, local 6300 of the Illinois Federation of Teachers/AFT, represents nearly 2,700 teaching and graduate Assistants at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Members of GEO teach nearly a quarter of the total course load at the University and nearly half of the lower-level undergraduate courses are solely directed by graduate TAs. Yet, many graduate employees are compensated below a level that even the University considers a "living wage." The union has been in contract negotiations with the administration since April, and its members have been working without a contract since August 15th.
Demands for adequate compensation by the union have been thwarted by an administration clearly unwilling to acknowledge and compensate employees who are vital to the University's mission. In light of these frustrations, the GEO membership has voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. The vote began on the evening of November 4th following a standing-room-only general membership meeting that overflowed the hall. The results of the vote were announced on the 9th, with 92% of membership voting in favor of the strike authorization. Numerous letters of support and statements of solidarity have been issued from various academic units within the University as well as from campus organizations. GEO public relations officer Peter Campbell called the results "a clear mandate to call a strike at any time." Indicating the GEO's desire to come to a reasonable settlement in contract negotiations, Campbell noted, "We've sent a letter asking the administration to meet this week. We are interested in resolving this through negotiation."
At the general membership meeting, GEO members resoundingly rejected the administration's recent proposal of a $600/ year raise for the lowest paid employees that would be realized over three years. The administration's proposal also included language that would allow the furlough of graduate employees. An earlier version of the administration's proposal had even called for "pay in kind", where housing and meal vouchers would be used as compensation rather than salaries. Such pay in kind harkens to the practice of employers issuing "company scrip" to workers, which could only be used to purchase products from the company-owned stores. GEO has proposed language that would protect the past practice of tuition waivers for graduate employees, however the administration did not include any such language in their proposal. Tuition waivers are more than simply a benefit to graduate employees. They make advanced education accessible to students who would otherwise lack the means to afford such opportunities.
The U of I administration has a history of corruption, the revelation of which has led to the recent resignations of both its president as well as the chancellor of the university system. Mysterious "discretionary funds" have been tapped for scholarships to well-connected yet mediocre students as well as for salaries for well-connected newly hired employees. Yet, at the bargaining table the administration claims that no money is available to raise the salaries of the lowest paid graduate employees to a living wage. The minimum salary for a TA or GA is $13,430, yet the U of I Office of Student Financial Aid lists a figure just over $16,000 as the minimum annual cost of living for a graduate student. "The administration is taking advantage of the economic crisis to argue that they don't have the money to provide grad employees with a living wage, and they'd be happy to use that argument for all of their lower-paid workers, but it really doesn't hold water," said Campbell. Campbell cited the latest projections for the U of I budget which is slated to increase by 1.1% from the previous year. In fact, for the 2009 fiscal year, revenues from tuition increased by 14.5%. Even in light of the recession, private donations to the university increased 2.6% and income from the university's endowment increased by 5% from the previous fiscal year. The GEO's demands for a living wage would constitute only a fraction of one percent of the total budget.