CHICAGO — Graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago successfully avoided a strike and secured important gains in a proposed contract after 13 hours of “grueling” mediation last Monday.
The main sticking point in negotiations that had dragged on for almost a year was the university’s refusal – until now – to guarantee the tuition waivers which grad students currently enjoy. Since most grad students make less than $15,000 a year, freedom from tuition which could otherwise reach more than $10,000 is a key part of their compensation.
“It was very scary, while we didn’t have any direct threat from the administration to take away tuition waivers, they kept saying it’s such a difficult time they couldn’t guarantee our waivers,” said Gina Gemmel, an English lit graduate student who is communications committee chair for the 1,400-member Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) union. “That made it sound like they wanted to reserve the right to take away our waivers. I earn $14,000 a year – out-of-state tuition would be almost that amount, so there’s no way I could afford it.”
The union was also demanding input and information on the controversial “tuition differential fees,” which they say the university seems to impose arbitrarily and without warning.
“People felt like they could pop up at any time without any reasoning,” said Gemmel. “In the past people only found out about them when they got their bill.”
She said the fees were supposed to be for students who theoretically would earn significant future incomes in fields like dentistry.
“But we have people in art history getting tuition differential fees, and art history is not known for its great earnings potential.”
On Monday university officials agreed to include meetings about these fees in the contract. While the fees were not eliminated, Gemmel said at least they now have a mechanism to negotiate and fight them.
“We got greater transparency with the fees, information on why the fees are implemented, where exactly the money is going, why the fees are raised,” she said. “We will receive justifications for those things – basically the university has agreed to meet with us so we can have some input on that process and they will make a good faith effort to answer our questions.”
The contract, which went before members for formal ratification late last week, also includes pay raises and increased healthcare contributions from the university.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.