The Daily Illini

GEO holds protest tutor-in as possible strike looms

By Heather Schlitz, Staff Writer

Dressed in plastic ponchos and chanting to beats banged out on upturned garbage cans and water coolers, the two-day Graduate Employees’ Organization strike in 2009 extracted important concessions from the University about tuition waivers and wages.

As the GEO and the University remain embroiled in a months-long contract dispute and a potential strike looms on the horizon, the GEO said it still hopes to avoid a strike.

Intending to demonstrate its organizing power and commitment to undergraduate education, the GEO is planning an overnight tutor-in on Thursday, in response to unsatisfactory results from months of bargaining.

“We’re trying to say that we’re doing everything possible to not go on strike,” Gus Wood, co-president of the GEO, said. “We are basically going to take over the Union all night and we’re going to try to get every subject on campus there so that undergraduates can come all throughout the night to get tutoring services from us.”

The GEO has called the tutor-in an act of civil disobedience, as it hasn’t received permission or notified the University of the protest.

“We enjoy doing it,” Bruce Kovanen, chief grievance officer of the GEO, said. “We think it’s a good service for students who probably want a little study help on Reading Day as they gear up for finals, so it’s something we’re looking forward to.”

Wood predicts the event will be a precursor to one of the biggest fights in the University’s history. With issues over tuition waiver language, wages and childcare subsidies brewing, the GEO hopes the Reading Day tutor-in will spur movement at the bargaining table and showcase the work graduate students do.

Robin Kaler, associate director for Public Affairs, said the protest will have little effect in upcoming bargaining sessions.

“They have every right to have some sort of protest action if they want to,” Kaler said. “We’re bargaining in good faith, so you don’t need any sort of a protest to get us to do that.”

Wood said the bargaining issues on the table will transform the living and working conditions for the teaching assistants on campus.

The contract proposals the University submitted have drawn fierce objections from Wood, who worries aspects of the proposed contract would hamstring some students’ abilities to afford graduate education.

“They have passed the GEO regressive proposals that seek to undermine our contract,” Wood said. “The proposals they’re offering us would actually put us below the status quo of our current economic conditions.”

The contract that expired Aug. 15 included yearly raises to the minimum salary and 100 percent coverage of the student health service fee.

Under the contract expired in August, a graduate student must have a 25 percent time appointment in order to qualify for a tuition waiver. Wood has warned that the changes the University administration hopes to make will decrease compensation for graduate students and erode the GEO’s bargaining unit.

“We have literally the strongest tuition waiver language,” Wood said about the expired August contract. “It’s the strongest language ever. If they’re seeking to alter that, there’s nowhere else to go but down.”

The proposals the University has submitted offer only a one percent raise in salary during the first year, with no guaranteed raises and changes to tuition waivers after.

“They offer a proposal that doesn’t even seek to rectify some of those issues we’re having in terms of our economic stability,” Wood said. “It’s an outright betrayal of us and our labor for this University.”

Kaler said the University was working within financial constraints to provide the best deal possible for graduate students.

“Everyone who is leading this University was a graduate student at some point,” Kaler said. “We all understand what it’s like to be a graduate student, but we also understand that it’s important that we be good stewards of our resources.”

The GEO is seeking an eight percent raise on the minimum salary, a four percent raise yearly and to preserve current tuition waiver language. The GEO is also seeking childcare subsidies and stronger language regarding healthcare.

“We certainly cannot afford the proposals they are submitting,” Kaler said. “We continue to work hard, and I have lots of faith that we can get to an agreement.”

Wood said the University’s management of the campus wage program was neglectful, saying that even under the past contract, the average graduate student who was making $16,300 lived $6,000 below the published cost of living at the University.

He said a lot of teaching assistants on campus are becoming more disillusioned and in early November, the GEO’s strike authorization vote passed with 93 percent of members voting yes.

“The University simply has not responded to our calls, information, research and data, and our testimonials about our problems with economic stability on this campus,” Wood said.

Kaler said it doesn’t sound like the GEO is focused on trying to get an agreement if they are talking about striking.

“I hope that we could all stay focused on trying to get an agreement,” she said.

The GEO and the University have made some progress. At the last bargaining session, the GEO announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the University to settle an arbitration decision winning over $100,000 for Masters in Computer Science graduates denied access to tuition waivers.

Wood said the GEO wants to make sure graduate students don’t have to worry about tuition waivers and wages when they come to the University and obtain employment.

“They (shouldn’t) have to worry about debt for paying tuition and they don’t have to worry about finding a phone, or putting food in their fridge or taking care of themselves, and their families,” he said.

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