Graduate employees plan Union picket

By Drake Baer

Since late April, the Graduate Employees Organization has been in negotiations with the University over a new contract, but no agreements have been made. In the past few months, the union has picketed at Grainger Library, the Illini Union and other locations across campus.

Today they plan to picket at the Illini Union again.

Union members have said that they are displeased with the state of health care and other benefits offered by the University and are in intense negotiations with the University.

“It cost me $1,800 to get a root canal,” said Rachel Shulman, graduate student and employee. “That’s more than a month’s salary for me. I had to take out a student loan. And that’s always their answer: ‘Take out a student loan.'”

The poor wages and benefits offered by the University are not “financially commensurate with our responsibilities” as teaching assistants and graduate employees, Shulman said.

Robin Kaler, University spokeswoman, said the University is giving all it can to graduate students.

“We are always doing what we can to provide the best package possible with the resources we have available,” she said.

Schulman, though, said that graduate students work too hard for too few benefits.

“We’re the ones who make contact with the students, and not the professors, so informally a lot of the work falls on us,” she said. “When you become an instructor, there’s a whole slew of responsibilities beyond grading papers and tests.”

Shulman said that she also writes letters of recommendation and deals with issues of plagiarism.

She said that while she welcomes these additional responsibilities, the pay she earns does not properly correspond to the time she invests. Undergraduate education suffers due to the University’s treatment of graduate employee instructors, she added.

She said that the graduate employees have fought very hard for the right to organize, but it is the union that will fight for greater benefits.

“What we’ve experienced is a basic unwillingness to cooperate from the University,” said Christopher Simeone, graduate student and lead negotiator for the Graduate Employees Organization. “The University is not interested in genuine rational dialogue. They are interested in dragging it out as long as possible.”

“I would best describe the University’s approach as incredibly disappointing and unproductive. It’s not exaggerating to say that they have (historically) been dragged to the bargaining table,” he said.

David Morris, a graduate employee and former co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization, also said that the graduate employee health plan is similar to the undergraduate health plan but with some minor changes.

“We provide a professional service. We want professional treatment,” Morris said.

“It’s student insurance, not employee insurance,” Morris said. “The University assumes that many grad students are provided for by their parents, but that’s simply not the truth. Grad employees have partners and children.”

Simeone said that he is concerned with how the University is marketing itself toward prospective academics.

“What they’re telling developing scholars is that you’ll be impoverished and disrespected,” Simeone said. He added that if the University desires to raise its prestige, it must treat its students and employees well.

“We are not asking for a handout but instead fair compensation for the work we do,” Simeone said.

Graduate employees, he said, don’t desire luxuries but income competitive with the cost of living, studying and teaching at the University.

“It’s a sinister rhetorical trick to turn a request for compensation into a whiney plea for handouts,” Morris said.

Simeone said that the University should also supply graduate employees with the resources that they need, such as guaranteed access to an office.

“It’s a good thing that we don’t treat our jobs the way that they treat our jobs,” Simeone said.