GEO clash not over: Waivers need restoring

The memory of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s 2009 strike may have faded from the minds of many, but for graduate students — and particularly the University administration — the labor dispute that ended in a standoff over tuition waivers is as vivid as ever.

The disagreements between the Graduate Employees’ Organization, or GEO, and the University reached a standstill last week, when a neutral arbitrator ordered that the University restore tuition waiver benefits that had been lowered in the College of Fine and Applied Arts for Fall 2010. The University, in an act of unsurprising stubbornness, has refused to comply with the arbitrator’s decision. But if it wants to maintain the moral high ground in future labor disputes, it must comply with the union’s, as well as the arbitrator’s, demands.

Tuition waivers are granted to graduate students who work for the University as teaching assistants. Coming into Fall 2010, the GEO said the College of FAA reduced this waiver, which once covered full tuition for both in- and out-of-state students. This was reduced to only cover the amount of in-state tuition for all incoming students, essentially doubling the fees out-of-state graduate employees would have to pay.

While no students involved in the 2009 strike were directly affected by this change, the union filed a complaint saying this reduction in benefits violated the terms of the two groups’ contract. Both the University and the GEO agreed to defer to an arbitrator, whose decision is binding, according to the contract both groups signed in 2009.

The University’s position, according to arbitrator Jay C. Fogelberg, was that their agreement with the GEO “cannot logically be interpreted to include new-hires into assistantships.” Instead, the University said a portion of the agreement was meant only to reassure current employees that their benefits would not be reduced. But the imprecise language of this agreement meant to Fogelberg that this argument does not fly.

The University had best return FAA tuition waivers to where they were in accordance with the binding decision made. Despite the fact that the college itself was seeing a shortfall of 8 percent in its budget going into Fall 2010, this means only more so that the University should have worked to ensure that. The current contract with the GEO expires in August 2012. If budget cuts are still as pressing as they were in Fall 2010, the University should make clear the necessity to dictate employee benefits on a year-by-year basis. But until then, the agreement stands, and the University must look elsewhere for cuts.