Graduate Employees’ Organization works toward community solidarity

By Shalayne Pulia

The University’s Graduate Employees’ Organization hosted a rally on Wednesday afternoon to support workers’ rights and to raise awareness about conflicts with University administration. The rally also addressed the GEO’s submission of an official grievance addressing the University Administration’s lagging support of tuition waivers for graduate student teachers’ assistants.

In response to the rally, GEO Grievance Officer Becky Schumann was pleased.

“I think it went pretty well,” said Schumann, a teachers’ assistant in the anthropology department. “There was a lot of energy. There was a lot of anger … I hope (the University) will at least come and meet with us.”

GEO Co-President Gus Wood shared Schumann’s sentiment. He believed the anger resulted from a lack of communication between the administration and the GEO.

“Right now we’re not getting transparency on a lot of fronts, especially what’s going on with tuition waiver issues and late appointment letters,” Wood said.

The rally also supported other underlying issues, such as the administration’s indifference to faculty unionization and a lack of diversity on campus, which is shown in part by a decline of African-American students, Wood said.  

“Hopefully this rally will be the first of many demonstrations that organizes all the workers from the campus and the community together to let them know that we’re not going to go down without fighting,” Wood said. 

Wood is a second-year Ph.D. student in History specializing in labor struggles in the black South. He volunteers his time to the GEO using his labor research to push for solidarity in the area. 

Expanding the GEO’s reach from the graduate student population to the community has been a high priority in recent months, according to Wood. 

The organization hired a community organizer in August to set the solidarity initiative in motion. Grant Antoline, the community organizer, said he has big plans for a cooperative environment between local unions and the community. Antoline comes from a family of union workers and worked for nonprofit organizations before his time at the GEO.

“We need to hearken back to a time when the union had so much more to offer the public than just a basic job from management,” Antoline said. “I want our union to behave like a family.” 

In addition to the rally, Sameerah Ahmad, one of GEO’s two union organizers, has set up the GEO’s first Craft Beer Night on Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. Ahmad said the idea came from an event she helped plan during her three-year span as executive director for the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Center. 

The Indi Go Artist Co-op and Gallery on University Avenue has donated their space for the Craft Beer Night and will also be featuring their second annual Pro Show, which begins Friday and continues until Nov. 25. The gallery will showcase local professional design projects. Guests can expect to see a variety of work from advertising to typography and web design. To learn more about the GEO’s goals, visit its website or check out its Facebook page. 

In exchange for donations, attendees can enjoy Union-made craft beers and wines from breweries like Lagunitas, a California-based company with a brewery in Chicago. Featured beers will include an India pale ale, Czech style pilsner, pale wheat ale and more. 

“Union people like beer,” Ahmad said with a laugh. “Often times, the labor movement has real struggles in front of us like maintaining our contracts, fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, fighting for better health care, and when you’re doing all that organizing and constantly fighting, it’s sometimes good to just also celebrate the labor movement.”

Laguintas Brewing Company has also donated T-shirts, magnets, coasters and other apparel to the GEO for the event. 

All donations to the GEO’s event will go to support the organization’s solidarity efforts and Antoline’s community organizing plans, according to Ahmad. 

Before working with the GEO, Ahmad also interned in 2008 with Chicago’s United Electrical Union during a time of turmoil for laborers. Massive bank bailouts led to unemployment threats during this time. 

It was here that Ahmad said she had her first taste of social justice watching a group of workers stage a sit-in at a factory and win support. 

“It was a really exciting case where brown and black workers were coming together to take an aggressive action and actually lock themselves in the factory and say, ‘No, we’re going to protest this,’?” Ahmad said. 

The child of a working-class Muslim family in northwest Indiana, she had always felt uncomfortable surrounded by a rural conservative majority. In college, she joined the United Students Against Sweatshops group at her undergraduate alma mater, Purdue University. 

“When the opportunity came to join a social justice organization, it seemed like a pretty natural fit,” Ahmad said. 

Her experience with the student social justice group supporting international apparel industry factory workers brought her one step closer to the labor movement. Social justice would stay at the forefront of her goals through her collegiate and post-graduate work.

“That taught me how to organize, how to be an efficient activist and to see that we could actually change things,” Ahmad said. 

Today, she said she believes wholeheartedly in the power of solidarity to induce change. Solidarity among members of the GEO has become the backbone of the organization and the goal of their upcoming initiatives. 

Ahmad and Antoline said they both hope that those initiatives will include a full-fledged workers’ center in the future to support low-wage and immigrant workers. The center would strive to educate members about their right to organize, work for overtime pay and stand up against discrimination, as well as other rights. 

“Being an agricultural community, we have a lot of immigrant workers who are notoriously abused,” Antoline said. “I’d like to see Champaign County first acknowledge its shortfalls and start realizing that while we do have a metropolitan county, we do have some serious problems that we need to address for the health of our residents here.”

He explained the span of abuse covers not only employment issues, but also health care and housing that are often at risk when workers contend for their rights. 

Wage theft — including lack of overtime pay, below minimum wage earning and other wage-related problems — is an issue that Ahmad said the GEO would also like to address. She said she believes it is a nation-wide epidemic that a local workers’ center would go to support for the Champaign-Urbana community. 

“It’s sort of a mix between a union and a community nonprofit organization that is trying to support the rights, justice and empowerment of low-wage workers across the country,” Ahmad said.

Antoline said he hopes Saturday’s event will be a step in the right direction for the GEO’s efforts to come together to discuss overarching issues, regardless of union affiliation. Once issues like those related to workers’ rights are identified, Antoline said he believes the community as a whole can start working together to eliminate them. 

“I want to see us do more than just exist,” Antoline said. “I want to see us thrive … And that’s what we’ll do.”

Shalayne can be reached at [email protected].