GEO wins arbitration case against University, secures tuition waivers

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

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. Effective Fall 2010, 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, testimony to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and other events.

After a hearing in mid-July, an independent arbitrator on Sept. 20 declared the University’s tuition waiver policy 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 GEO communications officer Rodrigo Pacheco-McEvoy in a release.

University officials express 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 GEO Co-President Miriam Larsen, 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 argues attempting to charge incoming graduate employees tuition on the part of administrators has cost the University 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.