Monday marked the first day of a planned strike by graduate student workers at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus. On Monday afternoon, more than 400 graduate employees rallied on the campus’s main quad to call attention to the walk-out.
Members of the Graduate Employee Organization, or GEO, carried picket signs, chanted union slogans and beat on bucket drums. GEO leaders assured the crowd they’d win a fair contract from the university administration and urged them to remain united in the cause. The university and the union have been in negotiations over a new contract for nearly a year. The biggest sticking points are tuition waivers and wages for graduate workers. The GEO wants higher pay and guaranteed tuition waivers for all graduate workers. The university administration has offered to protect waivers for current students but wants control over allocation of tuition waivers disbursed to future graduate students.
State Rep. Carol Ammons also spoke at the rally. The Urbana Democrat says she supports the GEO’s fight for higher wages and guaranteed tuition waivers for all grad workers. In an interview with Illinois Public Media following her speech at the rally, Ammons said tuition waivers are necessary for students, and especially students of color, who otherwise could not afford to attend graduate school.
"If that is a critical part of the graduate employee package, we must keep that," she said. Ammons said she was disappointed the union and the administration could not avoid a strike. She said she has encouraged administrators to return to the bargaining table.
"This strike today tells me obviously the table has broken down," Ammons said. Since the budget impasse, Ammons said the state university system has struggled to attract Illinois students. A prolonged strike could further deter students from enrolling at the university, she said.
“If we are on strike with our students here at the university it makes it very difficult for a new student to say, 'hey, I’m going to make that [school] my priority,'” Ammons said.
GEO leaders say grad employees are already struggling to make ends meet. Without tuition waivers, they say most wouldn’t be able to attend the university. UIUC provost Andreas Cangellaris says the administration offered guaranteed waivers for current GEO members. But the administration wants more control over tuition waivers in the future.
“The university wants to continue having the flexibility to consider new professional degrees that respond to needs or trends in the world in terms of specialized education at the post-grad level," Cangellaris said.
The administration’s latest proposal includes an increase to the minimum wage and increases in contributions to health plans for graduates workers.
The GEO includes roughly 2,700 graduate student workers. The last time they went on strike was in 2009.