GEO fights to keep tuition waivers

An independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, agreeing that an attempt by University officials to reduce tuition waivers for some incoming graduate employees represents a “clear violation” of the contract between the union and the University’s Board of Trustees.

Tuition waivers are a benefit of employment and organizers say preventing reduction of tuition waivers will preserve quality of education at Illinois while protecting vital labor standards.

In November 2009, over 1,000 GEO members went on strike to prevent the reduction or elimination of tuition waivers for graduate employees. They won contract language-protecting tuition waivers for current and future teaching and graduate assistants at the University.

In the summer of 2010, a policy change took effect impacting tuition waivers for incoming graduate employees in several departments in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. That fall, incoming graduate employees in those departments were no longer granted waivers for out-of-state tuition. Even with temporary scholarships, many FAA graduate employees earning between $7,000 and $9,000 per academic year were left with additional fees totaling up to $1,000.

In 2010, the GEO filed a grievance alleging a contract violation, while GEO members launched a public awareness campaign that included email and letter drives, communication with elected officials and testimony to the Board of Trustees.

After a hearing in mid-July, an independent arbitrator on Sept. 20 declared the University’s tuition waiver policy was in violation of its contract with the GEO.

The arbitrator ordered the administration to “make whole” any harm done to graduate employees.

“Not only does the ruling secure tuition waivers as a benefit of employment for graduate employees, which is absolutely necessary to maintain accessibility to public higher education at UIUC; it also helps protect the arts from budgetary cutbacks,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-McEvoy, GEO communications officer, in a press release.

University officials expressed opposition to the arbitration ruling.

“We strongly disagree with the decision and logic of the arbitrator and are committed to working with the Graduate Employees’ Organization to identify ways to move forward,” said Robin Kaler, University spokesperson, in a statement.

The GEO is entering another bargaining year with the University, and Miriam Larsen, GEO co-president, said its members are “fully committed to protecting the tuition waivers that make a high quality graduate education accessible to a diverse student body.”

Kaler argued the contract with the Graduate Employees’ Organization was not violated when some programs within the College of Fine and Applied Arts made the decision to change the level of waivers offered to incoming students in Fall 2010 because they maintained the levels of tuition waivers held by graduate and teaching assistants already enrolled in those programs.

The GEO said attempting to charge incoming graduate employees tuition on the part of administrators has cost the University as much as $100,000.

“Consistent with our long-standing practice, the campus honors the tuition waivers offered to graduate students at the time they began their graduate program as long as they hold waiver-qualifying assistantships, remain in good academic standing, are making adequate progress towards their degree and are in the same academic program,” Kaler said.