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The recent anti-budget protests in Wisconsin have brought collective bargaining rights to the foreground. At the University, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) has initiated a 24/7 solidarity vigil in support of the Wisconsin workers; the vigil is ongoing, even after Wisconsin senators passed legislation that effectively ends collective bargaining rights for the state’s public sector workers.

Though the GEO is highly visible on campus when its members take action — through protests, strikes and sit-ins, for example — not many students know how the organization functions on a day-to-day basis.


When it comes to bargaining time, the graduate student union on campus represents about 2,500 dues-paying teaching and graduate assistants.

But fewer than half of those assistants are actually union members and thus have no say in how the union budget is spent or how policy is set. The lack of participation in membership also means that it is tough for union leaders to assess the needs and concerns of the entire bargaining unit.

“I think the biggest struggle for us in terms of talking to non-members is that we are an organization that is primarily run by members,” said Katie Walkiewicz, co-president of the union and a graduate student in the Department of English. “It is an issue of how many people we have who are willing to do the leg work to get to people, because the University won’t let us send Mass Mail (to those in our bargaining unit).”

Adding to the union’s challenges is that more than two-thirds of the dues they collect go to parent unions, one of which they say they have almost no contact with.

The graduate union, known officially as the Graduate Employees’ Organization, automatically collects about $700,000 in dues each year from the paychecks of the 2,500 assistants. It also represents another 500 research assistants, post-professional graduate assistants and fellows who voluntarily pay dues.

The GEO then sends about $475,000 in total to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), leaving it with about $225,000 to pay staff and office expenses.

The graduate union is also turning over more money to its parent unions for member dues this year. Though the AFT’s rates have not increased, the GEO is paying its parent union an additional $2,750 to cover members who have less than full-time teaching or research appointments. This increase is a result of the graduate union’s expired “dollar dues,” which allowed the union to pay $1 for these same employees since 2002.

So how do these graduate students impact the campus community? The 2,336 teaching assistants in the union’s bargaining unit teach nearly one-fourth of the University’s undergraduate classes each year, while the 225 graduate assistants do research, grade papers, manage online sites and complete other academic course-related tasks for professors. The union says it wants to ensure that the assistants receive fair wages and benefits for all they do for the University. Two years ago, 1,100 union members struck for one day, to ensure tuition waiver security in the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

“I was proud of what happened in Spring 2009 when the University retracted their intention to reduce tuition waivers,” Walkiewicz said. “It was exciting to see the power (the GEO has) as an organization.”

But without adequate representation from its bargaining unit, the union’s power could potentially be undermined.

Involving non-members

The GEO’s Officers-at-Large make an effort to contact non-members through office visits to underrepresented departments, but the regularity of these visits depends on volunteer labor that is often insufficient.

Most recently, union representatives visited the departments of electrical and computer engineering, chemistry, architecture, urban planning, speech and hearing science, physics, English and music, among others.

During office visits, GEO representatives meet with members of the union’s bargaining unit to recruit new members, and to discuss grievances, workload concerns and issues with supervisors.

A primary goal of the graduate union is ensuring that its members are not being overworked, so union representatives encourage members to be vocal about the realities of their teaching conditions. Teaching and graduate assistants hired on one-third assistantships should work no more than 13 hours per week; those with two-thirds assistantships, no more than 26.

In addition to office visits, the union checks on member satisfaction in a variety of ways; in 2009, the GEO did a number of polls to see what its members thought about the new contract with the University. The union also solicits feedback from its e-mail account and at general membership meetings.

Ideally, Walkiewicz said, each department has a steward who represents the department and gives feedback to GEO officers on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes, she added, the underrepresented bargaining units are not as diligent about sharing their feedback with union representatives.

“We often find that the sciences are underrepresented … people in those departments tend to feel more secure in their paychecks,” Walkiewicz said.

Union dues structure

The roughly 2,500 graduate employees pay up to $180 per semester to the graduate union. Every graduate employee covered by the contract is required to pay a “fair share fee” or “representation fee” to the union, according to the union’s FAQ page. The fee amounts to 2 percent of the graduate student’s paycheck.

“While membership is optional, the dues are mandatory,” the union website states. “Under state law, a union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit in contract negotiations and disputes. Therefore everyone who benefits from the union is required to fund the services.”

Graduate employees who are not automatically represented by the union pay the same amount upon joining. These employees include those who are research assistants or pre-professional graduate assistants, or those who hold fellowships. According to a bylaw passed by the union in July 2004, no employee will pay an excess of $45 per month in dues. The membership fee for individuals outside the bargaining unit is currently set at $3 per University paycheck.

Over half of the GEO’s $650,000 to $700,000 in member dues and fair share fees is paid to its parent organizations; the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) receives approximately 51 percent of annual dues, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) receive a combined 17 percent. The remaining dues are used by the GEO to pay staff salary and benefits, to buy office supplies, to maintain a contingency fund, and to provide funding for organizing, training and contract bargaining.

This year, the graduate union is paying slightly higher dues to the AFT than it has in years past. The GEO has been on a “dollar dues” system with the AFT, a system created to allow new local units of a union to establish healthy foundational bases. In accordance with the dollar dues system, the GEO has been paying a discounted dues rate for eight years, and has thus been able to keep more member dues at the local level. Now that the GEO is an established union, it must begin paying the full dues amount to the AFT.

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