For months, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the official union of graduate employees, has been battling the university administration for a fair contract. The primary sticking points in the GEO’s argument are provisions for year-long healthcare, childcare, maintenance of tuition waivers, and wage increases that are aimed to keep pace with inflation—issues the university has not budged on. On Wednesday, October 4, the GEO organized a rally and protest march to the Swanlund Administration Building to publicly pressure the university and to raise awareness about their struggle.
On October 26th, graduate employees and their allies were again at Swanlund, this time occupying the building with a sit-in and demonstrations outside. We can expect more such public demonstrations and occupations as the number of days without a fair contract for members of the GEO continues to grow since the old contract expired on August 15th. With the strike vote now called and passed with a 93-percent majority, a strike could also come soon.
Above and at top, UIUC GEO members protest at the Swanlund building on October 26, credit uiucgeo.org
Despite the growing public nature of the fight between the university administration and its employees, most undergraduate students at the university seem either unknowledgeable or passive about the subject. "Why, as undergraduate students," some might ask, "should we care about the issues facing graduate employees? Why would it matter to us if they had better wages or if they were able to secure tuition waivers for more departments for the next few years? What connection do these issues share with our academic careers at the university or with our lives in Champaign-Urbana in general?"
The truth is that the issues that graduate employees are fighting for directly affect the lives and academic careers of undergraduate students at UIUC. Graduate employees' struggle for a fair contract necessitates active undergraduate support because this actively affects undergrads. According to U.S. News & World Report, 19 percent of graduate teacher assistants were listed as primary instructors for classes. This means that for many of us undergraduates, graduate employee working conditions are our learning conditions.
As undergraduates, we need and deserve teaching assistants that are able to focus on doing just that: teaching. When a teaching assistant or graduate employee has to worry about whether they will have a tuition waiver next year or how they will afford this month’s rent or get healthcare access over the summer, they will not be able to focus on their job. Course quality will decline, as will the quality of the personal academic support for undergraduates that graduates so crucially provide.
Furthermore, deteriorating working conditions will not attract future graduate employees to become teaching assistants at this university, which will result in professors saddled with even more class work. This will lead to professors who are unable to personally assist students or to provide the academic excellence the university prides itself on. The consequence of an unfair contract will be the further decline of the learning experience for undergraduates at the university.
If the administration persists in denying a fair contract to graduates, it is likely that they will go on strike. No one wants this. This will cost the university hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in replacement teaching assistants. With finals only weeks away, a strike will mean undergraduates will not be able to attend their classes or complete more assignments in order to boost their grades. Additionally, it means that about 2,500 graduate employees will go without pay or work for a few days, leading them to depend on a strike fund for an indeterminate amount of time. This would be the fourth year in a row that strikes have been organized and attended by employees in the University of Illinois system. As undergraduates, we deserve a learning environment free from the disruptions a strike would bring. If a strike occurs, it will be the administration, not graduate employees, that is to blame.
Apart from the direct consequences that withholding a fair contract will have for academia at U of I, undergraduates should also actively support the struggle of the GEO for a fair contract because it is morally right to do so. Currently, the minimum salary that the administration wants to maintain for graduate employees is about 30 percent less than the university's own published living wage. The administration is again threatening the tuition waivers that are crucial to many for their access to higher education. Worse still, they are trying again to raise healthcare prices for graduate employees, while simultaneously trying to stagnate wages and deny year-long healthcare.
Access to healthcare, a living wage, housing, and education are basic human rights, as recognized by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 22–26. It is an act of basic humanity to support the GEO’s struggle for a fair contract. The GEO is fighting for basic necessities, and these are basic necessities that graduate employees have a universally recognized right to access. We must fight for basic human rights!
Furthermore, no labor struggle is isolated. A victory here in the form of a fair contract shows people what type of community Champaign-Urbana is. Developing bonds of solidarity now will help future labor struggles here to succeed, and this will organize the community around the basic ideas of humanity outlined above.
The question of supporting the GEO should, therefore, be an easy one for undergraduates. It is a question of the type of university we want, the type of academic and learning environment we want, the type of community we want, and the type of morality we want to uphold. In the coming weeks, the GEO will be continuing to fight on campus for a fair contract. They will need you out there physically supporting them at demonstrations, as well as drawing attention to their struggle on social media or through your social and academic networks. We have a huge stake in this fight as students, as undergraduates at this university, as members of this community, and as members of this society. We have agency and power. It is up to us to exercise this power and tell the administration that we, as undergraduates, stand with the GEO. We demand a fair contract now!