Chicago Grad Students Ready to Strike Over Tuition Waivers

Kari Lydersen

University of Illinois-Chicago graduate students rally on campus on Monday, April 5. The Graduate Employees Organization authorized a strike in February, and it is likely to begin this week.

By Kari Lydersen

CHICAGO — More than 1,400 members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) may go on strike today (April 5) if there is no last-minute progress in contract negotiations. The union is demanding guaranteed tuition waivers, which are an important part of compensation for otherwise low-paid grad students, who make on average $14,000 a year.

Union members held an 8 a.m. rally on campus in a last ditch hope to push the university to respect their demands. Grad students and supportive faculty have been wearing Ready to Strike buttons since a Feb. 15 nearly unanimous strike authorization vote, and the union has a $50,000 strike fund in place. The undergraduate and graduate student government councils have passed resolutions supporting the union. The negotiations have been dragging on since April 2009, and the last contract expired in August. Grad students allege the university is intentionally stalling.

The university administration has proposed a contract that puts tuition waivers in danger for almost all grad students. The union’s website says:

This proposal would, for the first time, allow departments to set tuition waiver policy, opening up the possibility for partial waivers, limited-time waivers, and the use of other creative accounting practices to diminish our waivers.

The union explains why this is unfair to students and harmful for the university’s overall academic climate and reputation, potentially making it harder to attract and retain top students:

They also might grant all incoming graduate employees full waivers, and then only partially waive tuition in subsequent years, a practice that may encourage top-notch graduate students to finish their education elsewhere. Or they might only grant tuition waivers to Ph.D students, which is a practice some departments have already instituted. Additionally, tuition differentials could prevent students from finishing their education at UIC because they can be implemented or increased at any time, with no warning.

Graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign—about a three-hour drive from Chicago — faced a similar situation in the past year, with an administration proposal would have ended tuition waivers for out-of-state students. After a two-day strike by about a thousand of the 2,600-member bargaining class in November, the first at the school in over a decade, the union won guaranteed tuition waivers for all.

At both University of Illinois campuses a high number of classes are taught by grad students, making a strike potentially very disruptive — a powerful bargaining chip, but also a concern since grad students don’t want to hurt undergraduates already beset by budget cuts and cost increases. In the lead-up to the UIUC’s November strike and currently at UIC, grad students have done extensive outreach to undergrads to explain the issues and how they affect the school as a whole.

Along with the tuition waiver issue, the UIC GEO union is also dissatisfied with their current health plan, which costs $1,000 a year and often doesn’t cover dental or emergency care. The UIC GEO termed disingenuous an email sent out by the administration last week addressing other concerns but ignoring the tuition waiver issue:

The university’s recent offer of greater subsidies for health care is also step in the right direction, but we are well aware that these subsidies cannot provide greater economic security if the administration retains the right to offset them by diminishing our tuition waivers and increasing tuition differentials…Given that securing tuition waivers would cost the university nothing, their appeals to the University’s financial hardship are disingenuous at best. In fact, we are well aware of the university’s hardship, and this is the reason that it is so important for us to protect what we have now.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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