After Protests, A Win for Illinois Graduate Students

Akito Yoshikane

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students protest on campus Monday.
Graduate instructors at the University of Illinois are back in the classrooms Wednesday following protests over tuition waivers that brought the Urbana-Champaign campus to a near standstill this week.

The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) unanimously voted to suspend the two-day strike Tuesday night after tentatively agreeing to a new three-year contract with the university earlier in the day. Its decision was the culmination of more than six months of negotiations that came to a head Monday.

The new agreement secures all four pillars” of the union’s original contract tenets:

  • Protections for tuition waivers (the sticking point that prompted the protests).
  • Two weeks of unpaid parental leave. 
  • Increased healthcare subsidies. 
  • Minimum salary raises totaling 10 percent over three years.

The GEO, part of the American Federation of Teachers, will meet in the coming days to ratify the contract, which will be passed onto the school for signatures to complete the deal.

The tentative agreement…represents a major victory for labor in the state of Illinois and the United States,” the GEO said in a press release.

Talks between UIUC and the graduate union broke down over a proposal that threatened to reduce or eliminate tuition waivers for out-of-state graduate instructors. Students from other states represent a majority of the 2,500 members of the GEO, and many rely on waivers to fund their education amid an academic climate with rising student tuition.

Without a tuition waiver, I can’t pay for anything. I can’t even apply for a credit card,” graduate student Sarah Hennebohl told the Daily Illini, the school newspaper. I don’t want to have to discontinue my education.”

But Emily Isaacson, a doctoral student in the university’s music school, says tuition waivers were never in real danger of being reduced or going extinct because they are a staple of graduate education and crucial to making a school competitive. If the waivers disappeared, Isackson said, UIUC would immediately become a bottom-tier university…All good graduate students would go elsewhere.”

Although she supported the strike, Isaacson wishes the GEO had focused on living stipends. UIUC graduate employees are not only paid much less than the surrounding universities, like Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin,” she said. We are not payed enough to live on. I’m disappointed this was not made more of an issue.”

The university maintained that it could not make concessions due to a tight fiscal budget. But Tuesday, UIUC and GEO finally agreed on tuition protections as long as graduate teachers holding qualifying assistantships are in good academic standing and make progress towards graduation.

We value the contributions our graduate assistants make to the campus, and we feel this tentative agreement represents the best possible contract given the financial constraints we face,” said Robert Easter, the school’s interim provost and interim chancellor.

During the recent negotiations the university and union traded shots online. The school sent mass e-mails to students and faculty explaining their stance, while the GEO posted statements and rebuttals on its homepage.

Negotiations had been ongoing since April. The union had been working without a contract since August 15 leading up to this week’s strike.

On Monday, several hundred graduate students gathered on the school’s Quad as students pondered whether to cross the picket lines to attend class. Some professors resumed classes in buildings not owned by the university.

Despite the disruptions, most of the student body supported the protests. The new contract is surely a boon for graduate students, but issues over low pay and scant benefits are hardly unique to the University of Illinois.

As In These Times has reported, universities are increasingly shifting toward profit-oriented models offering little job growth. And the problems have been hastened by the financial crisis. In the face of state budget cuts, graduate students and faculty from the East to the West Coast have protested over employee furloughs and reductions in health services.

As the university increasingly tried to cut costs, the GEO was sustained by a network of supporters that extended from students to academic unions. In return, the GEO echoed the same sentiments toward other institututions facing similar problems.

The GEO stands with higher education labor unions across the nation opposing the ongoing corporatization and privatization of our public higher education system. Public higher education must be accessible to all, regardless of economic standing,” the union said.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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