Grad students take a stand for access to higher education

URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, IL – On February 26, after 195 days without a contract, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign voted by a 97% margin to strike, and the strike began that day. The morning of the strike one could hear the sound of drums, whistles, horns, singing and chanting from two blocks away. The University Quad area was empty of the usual large crowds of students going to and from classes. Instead, there were hundreds of graduate students picketing in front of various buildings.

The main issue was tuition waivers. The administration wanted sole discretion over who gets waivers instead of the union contract requiring it for all graduate students, as it has been since the founding of the GEO Union in 2002. Without waivers graduate students would have to pay a minimum of $30,000 per year. The other issues were: 1) a pay increase to $17,000 per year, slightly above the federal minimum wage; 2) more of their healthcare costs covered, since insurance premiums increased 25% last year; and 3) a supplement for childcare expenses for members with children. These demands would cost one quarter of 1% of U. of I.’s $3.6 billion endowment for the next three years.

The administration wants a complete transformation of how the university operates to a corporate model, putting the cost of attending the university even more out of reach for working people. It will also starve various departments out of existence that don’t bring in as much revenue as others.

Since the late 1970s, there has been an attack on public education and its accessibility by the corporate ruling class. University tuition nationwide increased over 1,000% while eliminating grants and scholarships, preventing tens of millions of young people from obtaining a college degree and causing massive student debt for those not wealthy enough to afford tuition. Most of the GEO Union members are from working-class families.

On Day 10 of the strike, despite efforts to turn undergraduate students, non-tenured and tenured faculty against the GEO, 83% of undergraduate students and 93% of faculty stated support for the GEO. On the afternoon of March 6, a contingent of GEO members occupied one of the main administration buildings, stating they will not leave until they have a contract. Police sealed off the building to prevent other people from joining the occupation. The following afternoon the second largest administration building was occupied. On Day 12, the administration agreed to a tentative contract that was acceptable to the GEO rank and file bargaining team.

On March 9, the rank and file voted by a 98% margin to accept the tentative contract proposal, which made tuition waivers a guaranteed part of the 5-year contract, plus a 4% pay raise for the first two years and 2% in the next years, and the U. of I. paying 87% of healthcare costs with 25% coverage for one dependent with the stipulation that elected GEO members will negotiate with Health Alliance insurance company when the insurance agreement expires.

This strike got attention from all over the United States. The outcome sets a precedent that will have repercussions not just for other U. of I. unions and other graduate employees’ unions nationwide, but also for all public-sector workers across the country. This battle has grown from a contract negotiation to a movement for access to higher education.

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