On Saturday, May 14, 2022, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois protested at the Commencement ceremony. GEO members held up a large banner in the stands at Memorial Stadium that read, “Hey Andreas, why won’t you pay us? Poverty pay is Killeen grad workers. Fair Contract Now!”
After only 5 minutes, U of I security at Memorial Stadium forced GEO members to remove the sign or have it confiscated. Security stated that the banner was in violation of Memorial Stadium’s “no banner policy.” However, similar action was not taken against family members and visitors who brought signs to wave at graduating students.
GEO is currently in the midst of full-contract bargaining, and this protest was a response to the U of I administration’s dismissal of graduate worker concerns. After two months of bargaining, the administration has failed to present a full contract proposal that addresses key material concerns for workers: wages and economic benefits.
GEO co-president-elect Karla Sanabria-Véaz stated that, “It is unacceptable that during record high inflation, the university administration has shown very little interest in our economic proposal.” On May 11th, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an 8.3% increase in the consumer price index for all goods and services compared to a year prior. The current minimum wage for a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Graduate Assistant (GA) is $19,300 for a 9-month contract, with no guarantee of summer employment or healthcare. However, according to MIT, a living wage for a single adult in Champaign County is over $30,000 before taxes, and is even higher for graduate workers with families and dependents.
During his commencement speech, Timothy L. Killeen, President of the U of I system, stated that, “at the heart of it all, the University of Illinois system exists to serve you, each one of you, our students.” GEO calls on administration across the U of I system to match these words to action by fairly compensating graduate workers, who play a crucial role in the teaching and research of this university.
In addition to failing to account for graduate workers’ material needs, U of I administration has attempted to silence graduate workers speaking out about the need for a fair contract. Unfortunately, forcing GEO to remove their protest banner at commencement was only the latest in a line of administrative actions attempting to quell graduate worker protest.
Police threats and the university administration’s discipline process have both been used to repress labor activity among graduate workers. The GEO notes that this censorship is very characteristic for U of I administration, as it has relied on policing, surveillance and other punitive measures to silence workers and students on its campus stretching back at least to the anti-war movement in the 1960s.
During GEO’s strike in 2018, police were stationed at all entrances to the Swanlund Administration Building when graduate workers occupied the building, and Andreas Cangellaris, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and University Provost, instructed students in a campus-wide message to contact the University of Illinois police department if they “have any concerns or experience any difficulties” during the strike.
The new campus expressive activity policy under revision could further empower U of I administration to silence student and community dissent by restricting protest locations and the usage of megaphones. The policy also limits protests at the Alma Mater statue by stating that actions must not interfere with potential photo opportunities. The new policy expands the definition of “disruptive conduct,” undermining graduate workers’ right to protest. The GEO will continue to challenge the university administration’s abuse of power by pushing for additional protections for labor actions.
During his commencement address, Chancellor Robert J. Jones claimed that the U of I campus was one of the safest places in the country, if not the world, during the pandemic. However, administration has repeatedly ignored graduate workers' concerns about testing accessibility, remote work options, and coverage of Wellness Support Associates (WSAs).
As GEO has pointed out both in impact bargaining and full-contract bargaining, the administration's pandemic safety measures are uneven, fail to account for diverse working conditions, and fail to center the voices of d/Disabled and immunocompromised people in the U of I community.
Just two days before commencement, the administration announced that face coverings would be optional for in-person summer classes. As of May 18th, the 7-day average COVID-19 positivity rate on campus is 4.17%, there have been 248 cases in the past 7 days, and a new subvariant of Omicron, BA 2.12.1, is poised to become dominant in the United States. As of May 20th, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department shared that Champaign County is now at high transmission rates, and recommends masking indoors. Masks have been highly effective at reducing transmission, so this new decision demonstrates that the U of I administration is not in fact committed to making the campus the safest place in the state, much less the country or the world.
GEO will continue to exercise its right to labor action until we receive a fair and complete contract that truly serves graduate workers.
To demand that the administration protect its workers and students by reinstating the mask mandate for in-person classes, sign this petition. If you’d like to learn more about these issues, please contact GEO at [email protected].
Megan Mericle is a graduate worker at UIUC in Writing Studies, and a Communications Officer for GEO.