Monday, April 5, 2010

Chicago Teaching Assistants on Edge of Strike: ‘No Waiver, No Labor!’

This was originally posted on Labor Notes.


Hundreds of graduate student employees rallied at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus early Monday morning. They're threatening a strike to protect tuition waivers and to put a floor underneath graduate employees’ meager earnings. Photo: Matt Muchowski.

Hundreds of graduate student employees rallied at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus early Monday morning to pressure their administration to protect tuition waivers for teaching assistants.

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization, they will likely go on strike tomorrow if the administration refuses to include tuition waivers for graduate employees in the contract and limit “tuition differential” fees. GEO, Local 6297 of the Teachers (AFT), has 1,400 members. The university has about 25,000 students enrolled.

GEO members have tuition waivers now, but the union says the university’s current offer would allow the administration to grant partial waivers and make arbitrary alterations to a key economic item for members.

Any waiver will become pointless, however, if the administration continues to find other ways to charge students through fees and tuition differentials. GEO organizer Jason Leto likened these fees to “paying for a job.”

The differentials create a backdoor tuition that allows departments to charge graduate students for registration, services, and office supplies. The fees vary from department to department, but GEO says some members pay as much as $11,000.

GEO is seeking a campus-wide system for regulating and reducing the fees.

Laura Nussbaum, a teaching assistant in Anthropology, said securing waivers and limiting fees are essential to put a floor underneath graduate employees’ meager earnings, about $15,000 in pay annually. Ellen Kang, another anthropology TA, said, “It’s not possible to live off of what we make.”


The rally took place on the final day of mediation between the union and the administration, outside the building where the meeting was taking place. GEO members have been working without a contract since August and have been in negotiations since last April.

Supporters banged on drums and chants from the energetic crowd echoed through campus. GEO members wore their red T-shirts and “GEO—Ready to Strike” buttons. Members authorized a strike in February by 84 percent.

A sister grad employees union, GEO at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went on strike last November over many of the same issues and won in less than two days. UIC GEO has built a strike fund of $50,000 in preparation for an action.

Nussbaum said most TAs put in 14- to 15-hour days, preparing classes, grading papers, writing exams, and helping students with their papers, in addition to their own studies.

Often Nussbaum has 90 five-page papers to grade, which take about a half hour each. The grading takes up an entire 40-hour week, but Nussbaum also finds herself helping students with few study skills catch up to college-level coursework.

“They have gotten a really good deal out of us so far,” she said.

Undergraduate students have rallied to GEO’s cause. Diana Lloga, a Pyschology and English double major, said she planned on pursuing an advanced degree and commended the grad employees for “setting a standard for years to come.”

English Professor Walter Benn Michaels told the crowd at today’s rally that grad students at UIC were “underpaid and overcharged,” and criticized the “recalcitrant” administration. Michaels said faculty are attempting to organize with UIC United Faculty and that GEO was an inspiration to them.

“In a way I envy you because you have the GEO. You have an organization for collective bargaining, to fight for you,” he said. “We are here for you now and we hope that you will be here for the faculty one day soon.”

Striking graduate employees could soon be joined by clerical and cafeteria workers on picket lines. After working a year without a contract, Service Employees Local 73 will be taking a strike vote next week. At the GEO rally, Chief Steward Joe Iosbaker came to “salute you, stand in solidarity with you, and follow your example. Same employer, same fight.”

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