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Illinois Graduate Students on Strike

2009 November 16

The students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are on strike today, following up on the promises of their union (the Graduate Employees’ Organization [GEO]), a local union of the American Federation of Teachers.  The terms of the strike are a bit surprising.  It’s not about wages, job security, notification of when contracts are to be expired, or anything that I would normally associated with a strike.

It’s about out-of-state tuition wavers.  Apparently, UIUC refused to put wording into its official regulations regarding decisions on these tuition waivers – the typical practice of graduate schools to waive the tuition of graduate students if they perform service (such as teaching) to the university.  By the terms of the strike, it doesn’t even look like UIUC is refusing to give tuition waivers.  Instead, it appears that the GEO wants to be involved at the bargaining table whenever decisions about tuition waivers are made, and that is what UIUC is refusing.

It was apparently a peculiar set of interactions.  It seems that UIUC agreed to all of the other demands of the union except this one.  But this demand was evidently brought up very late at the bargaining table, with little time to address it.  The GEO views this as an underhanded tactic to sneak new undesirable terms into the agreement.

Despite the fact that there are evidently picket lines of TAs, I’m seeing relatively little chatter about how things are going.  A provost evidently sent out misleading mass emails to the students.  But how are things going for faculty who rely on TAs for classes, and especially for students whose classes are taught entirely by graduate students?  At least one UIUC student and Twitter user apparently feels she has been personally affected already:

LauraCatherineK Hey, #UIUC GEO: Stop picketing, start teaching. I’m not paying $25K a year to go here & not learn anything. This is not the time to strike.

Frankly, considering that the requested change is so minor, it is a little confusing why UIUC would not meet union demands.  Is it pride?

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  1. Shawna permalink
    November 16, 2009

    Initially, the uprising of the GEO was also based on issues of a living wage (they want a minimum salary of $16,000, which is Champaign’s living wage) and the university’s bid to reserve the “right” to fire a graduate student in good standing, in addition to the tuition waiver.

    Those undergraduates need to learn the conditions under which they (ie, their parents) are “paying 25k a year.” If graduate student ground is lost little by little, just as adjunct ground has been lost, and just as tenure-track positions shrink to a tiny portion of the teaching force, we’ll complete the slide to becoming Ye Olde Underpaid Overworked Factory Minions. They should understand that preserving graduate students’ traditional benefits is a key part of their own “right” to have instructors who enjoy secure jobs, a reasonable teaching load, and a living wage.

    I know that every little piece of ground denied to me as a graduate student ends up influencing my performance in the classroom. Do I mean to cheat my students? Absolutely not. Do issues like wages and working conditions affect the quality of my work? Absolutely. I resent having to pay for my own copies to give them syllabi, study sheets, and handouts; I go to the classroom in a bad mood if I’ve just learned about not getting a travel grant, about being denied the opportunity to teach a great class, etc. You get the point.

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