The Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO), IFT/AFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has successfully ended a two-day strike against the university administration. The GEO walked out on Monday morning, after nearly seven months of negotiations during which the administration refused to sufficiently guarantee tuition waivers. On Tuesday morning, the administration agreed to a side letter to the contract that included language acceptable to the GEO.
The strike began with a 7:45 a.m. kickoff rally during which Kerry Pimblott, the GEO's lead negotiator, incited members to "shut this University down." With over 1,000 members braving cold, rainy conditions to walk the picket lines over the course of the first day, that objective was largely achieved. Hundreds of course sections were suspended, including dozens taught by faculty members who refused to cross GEO pickets. The lines were animated throughout the day, with members and supporters grooving to the beat of the GEO's mobile "drum corps." The day ended with a march on the Swanlund Administration Building, where GEO member Rich Potter told the crowd that, despite the administration's claim that there was no disruption on campus, "it will never be business as usual at the University of Illinois until our tuition waivers are guaranteed."
During the final pre-strike bargaining session, the administration offered protection for in-state tuition waivers, but refused to guarantee that the current practice of granting out-of-state waivers, which are currently held by the vast majority of graduate students, would not be changed without first bargaining the impact of those changes. Out-of-state waivers are crucial to the University's ability to attract the most talented and committed graduate students. As graduate employees perform nearly one-fourth of the instructional labor on campus, the quality of graduate students is directly related to the quality of undergraduate education at Illinois. The GEO feared that administrators were planning to cut out-of-state waivers in certain departments as a cost cutting measure. In the words of UIUC professor and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) President Cary Nelson, "given that the administration had already eliminated them for research assistants in the sciences, there was good reason to fear administration interest in cherry picking humanities or social science sub-disciplines for similar treatment."
Although the strike was called over the single issue of tuition waivers, the GEO made gains across the three other "pillars" of its contract platform by securing an additional two weeks of unpaid parental leave, increases to the university's contribution to health care premiums (reaching 75% in the third and final year of the contract), and raises on the minimum salary, totaling 10% over three years. The GEO also forced the administration to drop their regressive contract proposals, including furloughs, "in-kind" payment, a recision of grievances related to discrimination, and a "scope of the agreement" clause that would have prevented the GEO from re-opening bargaining in the event of a change to employment conditions for graduate employees at UIUC.
The GEO called off the pickets shortly after noon on Tuesday and held a general membership meeting early that evening. In a simple up or down vote, the 450 members present unanimously recommended to the strike committee that it accept the agreement and suspend the strike. The strike committee met immediately afterward and acted accordingly. The union will now call an official contract ratification vote which, if successful, will officially end this round of contract negotiations. GEO members were in a jubilant mood Tuesday night. Peter Campbell, the union's communications officer, said, "We're very proud of the work we've done over the last seven months and especially during the last couple of weeks. This is not just a local issue. We view our strike as just one part of a global struggle to halt the corporatization and privatization of public higher education. The GEO especially stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Illinois Chicago campus, whose negotiations with the Board of Trustees continue, and with higher education labor unions in California, who will be engaging in a three day strike to resist major tuition hike for both undergraduate and graduate students." Campbell also pointed out that the timing of the GEO victory is especially sweet given that it falls during the "Education is NOT for $A￡€!" Global Week of Action, which is being organized from Germany and includes demonstrations and teach-ins across Europe, in Africa, and in the United States in support of accessible public higher education.