UIC GEO reach agreement after walkouts, strikes

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UIC GEO reach agreement after walkouts, strikes

Protestors gather for a GEO rally at the Illinois Fire Institute on Sunday, Feb. 25.

Protestors gather for a GEO rally at the Illinois Fire Institute on Sunday, Feb. 25.

Brian Bauer

Protestors gather for a GEO rally at the Illinois Fire Institute on Sunday, Feb. 25.

Brian Bauer

Brian Bauer

Protestors gather for a GEO rally at the Illinois Fire Institute on Sunday, Feb. 25.

By Meghana Kaza, Staff Writer

Graduate and teaching assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago have reached an agreement on April 5 after their third week of walkouts and strikes after failed negotiations with UIC.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization is a labor union representing nearly 1,600 graduate and teaching assistants at UIC. The GEO went on strike on March 19 following a year of the failed negotiations for new contracts.

Allan Axelrod, Ph.D. student in ACES and current teaching assistant in agricultural and biological engineering, is a member of UI GEO.

Axelrod said in an email that last year, the University administration wanted to weaken tuition waiver protections so they promised graduate employees one set of benefits, including a tuition waiver, when they start their program, but removed it later on.

“This bait and switch would have made graduate education and labor at UI only tenable for the wealthy, rather than for workers of all backgrounds,” Axelrod said.

A statement released by Michael Amiridis, chancellor of UIC, states that graduate and teaching assistants have an important role on campus.

“We understand the financial needs of graduate students, as well as all employees of UIC, and we are doing our best to address them through collective bargaining,” Amiridis said in his statement.

According to Anne Kirkner, co-president of the UIC GEO, the members of the GEO are crucial for the functioning and operating of classes as they hold discussion sections, grade papers, work with students and perform other labor that enables the University to function.

Kirkner adds that the GEO is the only entity with the legal authority to negotiate on wages and working conditions for all members.

“We negotiate collective bargaining agreements that govern things like wages and working conditions,” Kirkner said in an email. “When members feel their rights in the CBA have been violated, we can file legally binding grievances to protect that person’s rights as a worker.”

Axelrod also shared the concerns of the UI GEO.

“Both TAs and (graduate assistants) endure overwork, low wages and wage theft through employer-imposed fees,” Axelrod said in an email. “Increases in fees and the lack of childcare support continue to be concerned for our members.”

Kirkner claims there are two main reasons why TAs at UIC are striking right now. First, living wages.

“Grad workers at UIC are among the lowest paid grad workers in Chicago, making $10,000 less than our colleagues at other Research 1 universities in the city,” Kirkner said.

The second problem is fee waivers. Kirkner said that TAs should not have to pay to work at the University.

“UIC grad workers have to pay nearly $2,000 in fees every year,” Kirkner said. “We think we deserve to make close to living wages without having to pay back 10% of our wages to the university.”

Kirkner said the GEO and UIC have been bargaining for a year now and UIC claims the fees from the graduate students are needed to pay debt service fees on the non-state-funded construction projects.

“We feel they need to invest in workers and educators, not buildings,” Kirkner said. “Who will teach in all these new buildings if we cannot attract new graduate workers?”

Amiridis said UIC has chosen not to respond to any false narratives that have been widely disseminated.

“We are patiently waiting for the GEO leadership to come to the table ready to negotiate and not simply demand,” Amiridis said. “There is still room for negotiating, and we will continue to do so until we reach a resolution.”

As a result of the GEO strike at the Urbana-Champaign campus last year, international graduate employees who work as GAs and TAs gained visa protections to help prevent the loss of an appointment due to visa-related issues. This also applies to students protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival and domestic students who may have to leave campus for immigration-related appointments for themselves or family members. Fee waivers are also guaranteed.

“We also protected tuition waivers, as well as achieved an 8.5 percent raise to the minimum wage and a 2.5 percent increase to reappointed workers,” Axelrod said. “For the first time, we were able to negotiate a 25 percent subsidy for one dependent.”

Axelrod said the University should be more forthcoming in making tuition-waiver generating appointments available to international students who face visa issues that hindered their ability to apply for assistantships.

“We know that the University of Illinois System can and has worked to ensure assistantships to graduate employees with travel issues in the past, and they must do the same for incoming graduate students whose arrival is delayed due to visa issues and who are seeking assistantships,” Axelrod said.

Kirkner said the UIC GEO is seeking relief from the fees they are required to pay.

“We are really fighting for access to graduate school,” Kirkner said. “Without fee waivers and living wages, graduate school is only accessible for people with wealth, or people end up having to take out massive loans on top of any undergraduate debt they may be already carrying.”

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Editors Note: A previous version of the article said UIC GEO continue walkouts after failed negotiations. The UIC GEO reached an agreement April 5. The Daily Illini regrets this error.