Grad Students Strike at University of Illinois
By Dawn Rhodes
The graduate student workers' strike at University of Illinois will continue into a second week after a weekend mediation session failed to produce a contract agreement, union and university leaders said Sunday night.
Bargaining teams for the Graduate Employees' Union and the university administration returned to the bargaining table Sunday afternoon, the first meeting since union members walked off the job Feb. 26. Graduate and teaching assistants as well as their supporters have formed picket lines outside buildings in the Main Quad and staged rallies each day since launching the strike. Union leaders said this is the longest strike in the organization's 20-year history.
Urbana-Champaign Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in a email to undergraduates late last week that the strike had resulted in "a number of class cancellations and relocations."
Contract negotiations between the workers and the university administration have lasted nearly a year and resulted in dozens of negotiation and mediation sessions. Union members have worked without a contract since August. Another mediation session is scheduled for Wednesday, university spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
"We're glad to get back to the bargaining table today," Kaler said in a statement. "The only way we will reach an agreement that reflects our goals is to have the conversations about the different ways we are proposing reaching them. Those conversations can be difficult, but we feel that today's session was time well spent."
According to the union leader's account, it did not appear Sunday's session moved the needle in the standoff.
"The GEO bargaining team is always ready to meet if it will move bargaining forward, however the administration did not arrive with anything different from previous sessions," union leaders said in a statement. "No proposals were exchanged today."
The primary issues in dispute are tuition waivers and increases in minimum base pay for graduate and teacher assistantship positions.
Union leaders are seeking guaranteed tuition waivers for themselves and future students, arguing that benefit is the primary reason many can afford to pursue graduate-level studies at U. of I. at all. The administration wants to regain the ability to modify waivers for programming and financial reasons but says any changes would not affect the terms for currently enrolled students.
About 69 percent of union members have graduate and teaching assistant programs requiring them to work 20 hours a week up to nine months a year as a condition of their tuition waivers, according to a university website.
"The administration's proposal protects current graduate students but not future ones, and GEO members refuse to abandon their future colleagues by accepting a contract that will offer them no security," union leaders said in a statement.
The union also is seeking 7.47 percent raises to the minimum pay for assistantships in the current academic year. It also is requesting 3.5 percent base pay increases and 3.5 percent annual raises during a three-year contract. The administration proposed a 4 percent boost in base pay for this year then 1.5 percent increases in the remaining years of a five-year contract, according to a university website. Reappointed graduate employees would receive a 3 percent raise in the first year.
Union members also are seeking increases to health care coverage and a monthly child care subsidy for parents, among other benefits.
Provost Cangellaris previously said he felt the administration had made several concessions to try to avert a strike by agreeing to pay raises and increased coverage of union members' health insurance premiums.
With the walkout continuing at least until midweek, union members are asking graduate and teaching assistants not to submit midterm grades as part of the strike. The deadline for entering midterm grades for freshman students is at noon on Tuesday, March 6, according to the academic calendar.
An open letter signed by 33 members of the university student government on Friday supported the graduate union's demands and urged Cangellaris to work quickly to bring about a resolution.
"As the past few days demonstrate, without quality instructors the university cannot function," the letter states. "Students in every college have felt the effects of the strike in one way or another. Classrooms are empty, office hours have been canceled and testing has been rescheduled."
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