Strike at Illinois campus demands protection of tuition waivers

CHAMPAIGN – Update: GEO picketing was suspended at 1:00 CST on the 17th, following a bargaining session with the administration in which tuition waivers were secured. The strike was officially suspended on the evening of the 17th, and TA-directed classes resumed Wednesday morning. An official vote within the GEO membership to ratify the contract will likely be held this week.

Under cold driving rain, hundreds of members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) gathered to stand on picket lines on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. On Sunday, November 15th, the GEO announced that its members would initiate a strike, beginning at 8am on the 16th. GEO, local #6300 of the Illinois Federation of Teachers/AFT, represents over 2,600 teaching and graduate assistants at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. With nearly a quarter of the total undergraduate course load at the University and nearly half of the lower-level undergraduate courses being directed by graduate TAs, the strike is having a significant impact on the University.

Sprits were high on the picket lines, with drumbeats and chants echoing across the main quad. One picketer interviewed indicated that she saw most of her colleagues from the sections of the course she TAs on the lines. Another GEO member stated that a large number of lower level foreign language classes were also without their TAs. Peter Campbell, public relations officer for the GEO, indicated that they were hopeful that the administration would meet their demands, but said “If the administration continues to withhold language protecting tuition waivers in the bargaining session tomorrow, they can expect more of this.”

The union has been in contract negotiations with the administration since April, and its members have been working without a contract since August 15th. The GEO’s decision to strike came after a six hour-long negotiation session with the university administration on the 14th. During that session, the union’s negotiating team was able to come to tentative agreements with the administration on a number of issues important to the GEO membership. An increase in employer contributions to graduate employee health insurance premiums was secured, as well as a 3% annual raise in salary for each of three years for the lowest paid workers in the bargaining unit. It should be noted, however, that even with these raises the lowest paid members of the bargaining unit would still be $1260 short of the annual cost of living estimate provided by the University’s Office of Student Financial Aid.

GEO has proposed language that would protect the past practice of tuition waivers for graduate employees, however the administration did not include any such language in their proposal. “Tuition waivers” have traditionally been granted to all graduate employees on campus with appointments of 25% FTE (full time equivalent) and up. They are not cash handouts or salary of any form. As the name implies, tuition waivers are an automatic credit that erases tuition from each graduate employee’s accounts receivable bill each semester. Tuition waivers are more than simply a benefit to graduate employees. They make advanced education accessible to students who would otherwise lack the means to afford such opportunities. The administration’s proposal suggested that, since the Board of Trustees mandates in-state tuition waivers that no language is needed in the contract with the GEO. Since most graduate students at the U of I are from out of state, and regulations make it extremely difficult for current students to change their status to in-state, the GEO has made firm demands that complete tuition waivers be protected under the contract.

Graduate employee tuition waivers are common practice for most research universities. However, the administration had raised the possibility of eliminating tuition waivers for grad employees with appointments under 33% of FTE. This suggestion was met with considerable opposition during “town hall” meetings with the administration, who were later forced to issue a statement indicating that they were not considering revoking tuition waivers. The suggestion that waivers could be lost, however, compelled the GEO to include language protecting tuition waivers in their contract proposals.

During a time of economic crisis, when people are considering returning to school to pursue advanced degrees and potentially improve their chances in the labor market, a move by the administration to make graduate education accessible only to an elite and privileged few can only be interpreted as an attack on the working class.

In an official statement, the GEO made clear its position on the issue of tuition waivers. “The administration’s refusal to guarantee the continuation of its current tuition waiver practice not only means that the majority of graduate employees could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in additional tuition charges, but also indicates its plans to implement such a change,” reads the GEO’s press release. “By making graduate education untenable for all but the most affluent students, the administration is abandoning its responsibility to ensure access to the highest level of public education for all. This is contrary to the University of Illinois’ mission as a public land grant institution.”

In fact, the implicit willingness of the administration to forego tuition waivers is only one aspect of a growing trend among public universities’ administrations to adopt capitalist business models for their operations. Only about one quarter of the U of I’s budget comes from state funding. The remainder of the budget comes from private endowments/donations as well as an “overhead” garnishment of all research grants. America’s public universities are slowly but surely becoming privatized. The administration’s drive to squeeze the payroll budget and restrict tuition waivers, therefore, is in line with a capitalist business model of extracting the maximum surplus value from its labor force.

In their own press release, the administration claims that GEO’s demands for contractual protection of tuition waivers is an “11th hour demand.” However, the issue of tuition waivers has been a pillar of the GEO’s proposal from the beginning.