GEO contract negotiations, explained

By Heather Schlitz, Staff Writer

As an eleventh-hour bargaining session failed to produce a contract that could avert a strike, the Graduate Employees’ Organization began their strike 8 a.m. Monday after nearly a year of contract negotiations. Here’s what you need to know about how and why the GEO got to this point.

In an early-February interview with the Daily Illini, Gus Wood, co-president of the GEO, said the most pressing issues being negotiated are tuition waivers, health care and wage increases. This is what both sides want and have offered on these big-ticket items.

Tuition waivers

Possibly the most significant item on the table for the GEO, tuition waivers have been hotly contested throughout this bargaining cycle.

A mainstay in graduate education, tuition waivers reduce or eliminate tuition for graduate students working in universities, and represent a tool in keeping graduate education affordable in programs where it can take years to earn a degree.

Under the contract that expired in August, tuition waivers were guaranteed for teaching assistants and graduate assistants working a certain number of hours for the University.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    According to the University proposal submitted Sunday, the University seeks to reserve the right to create new programs and redesignate existing programs to self-supporting or cost-recovery status.

    Self-supporting and cost-recovery programs are implemented by the University to help graduate students pay their tuition.

    The main concern for the GEO is that students working in cost-recovery and self-supporting programs are not eligible for tuition waivers.

    Wood has said these changes would siphon talent away from the University as graduate students flock toward programs offering better financial deals while also chipping away at the GEO’s bargaining unit as fewer and fewer students are offered waiver-generating appointments.

    A statement from Provost Andrew Cangellaris expressed disappointment over the GEO’s decision to strike, saying the proposed contract guarantees tuition waivers for members of the bargaining unit throughout their academic career at the University.

    However, the possibility that access to tuition waivers could be curtailed for future students has sparked anger among graduate employees, who say tuition waivers are indispensable in sustaining the affordability of graduate education.


    The University proposal submitted Friday covers 87 percent of healthcare premiums, while the contract that expired in August covered only 80 percent, presenting a 7 percent increase.

    However, the GEO has said that nationwide premiums have risen by 24 percent in the last year, saying that the rise necessitates greater movement from the University.

    Wage increases

    Another point of controversy, the University proposal submitted Sunday would increase the minimum salary by 10 percent over the lifetime of the five-year agreement, something the GEO said would still place graduate employees below the published cost of living in Urbana-Champaign.

    The Friday proposal also stipulated a 1.5 percent raise during each year of the five-year agreement and a 3 percent raise during the first year of a reappointment with no guaranteed raises after.

    The GEO criticized the 1.5 percent raise as too little to keep up with inflation and the cost of living on campus. They also attacked lingering mentions of the campus wage program, where wages are set by the president and chancellors, as an illegal attempt to skirt bargaining over wages.

    A wave of support for the GEO has mounted on Twitter, with students, alumni and graduate unions across the country taking to social media to express solidarity with the GEO and outrage against the University administration.

    The GEO has also collected official statements of support issued by departments across the University, the Illinois Student Government and undergraduate student RSOs.

    A GEO strike in 2009 that saw similar scenes of mass teaching assistant and graduate assistant walkouts extracted a contract within two days. It is unclear how long the current strike will last.

    [email protected]