As I write this, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, at the University of Illinois is engaged in an effort to protect access to quality public higher education here in Champaign-Urbana. The GEO is a union that represents over 2,200 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants on campus. GEO instructors provide more than 20% of all class hours taught at U of I, and more than 35% of freshman course hours. GEO Teaching Assistants are vital to the education and research of the University. Currently, the GEO is negotiating a new contract to ensure the best graduate students and teachers can continue to work here at the University.
The most important issue in the GEO contract negotiation is guaranteeing tuition waivers. Most GEO members could not afford to attend the U of I without tuition waivers. They are a fundamental part of graduate education at every major university. Waivers are how universities, like Illinois, are able to hire graduate student labor so cheaply and compete for high quality students. Despite this the University is refusing to sign language to protect tuition waivers in the contract.
Sound familiar? In November 2009 the GEO went to strike over this very issue. We won. We got tuition waiver protection in our contract. Now the administration wants to remove this protection and has also violated our existing contract language in several departments in the Fine and Applied Arts.
Back in 2009, my friend David and I spent those two rainy strike days walking up and down picket lines serving about 1,000 people cups of coffee out of cardboard box containers. We met lots of cold, wet people.
We met graduate student teachers and undergraduates who were picketing because they care deeply that working class and under-represented students are less and less able to attend the U of I. Since 2001 the tuition has gone up about $6,000 per student per year, and the administration argues that this increase is needed because of a reduction in State funding. But here’s the thing, State funding has only dropped about $3,000 per student per year. This means the University has made more than $100 million in additional revenue through increased tuition.
Where has that money gone? Not to providing instruction. In 2009, we also met many faculty members who joined the GEO picket lines because of their concerns over increasing class sizes, declining numbers of tenure track faculty, and a general erosion of the quality of education. Since 2005, administrative positions at the U of I have increased by nearly 20% while instruction positions have not even increased 1%. Since 2001, student enrollment has increased 13%! This means fewer professors and more students.
In 2009, we also met university employees who clean the buildings, work in offices and labs across campus, and serve food to students in the dining halls. These hard-working employees were walking the line with GEO, because they also take pride in our University and want it to be a fair work place for all employees.
Finally, we met community members who were walking with the GEO because our union is committed to being a partner in building just and equitable Champaign-Urbana.
The GEO tuition waiver negotiations are connected to all of these concerns—and central to continuing a robust, diverse graduate student body population on campus.
Three years ago I spent two days pouring coffee to long lines of singing, chanting, teeth-chattering people who genuinely believe that public education is something worth protecting. The GEO is continuing to bargain for tuition waivers and remains committed to securing this protection in our contract.
And we’ll have a cup of coffee ready for anyone who wants to join us in the fight.
Stephanie Seawell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, where she studies Civil Rights and Black Power activism around sites of Public Recreation in Cleveland Ohio. She is also a member and former co-president of the GEO.