The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois is in the midst of an important fight to protect access to public higher-education. On campus support has been growing for the GEO in this struggle.
The GEO represents about 2,400 Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Graduate Assistants (GAs). These TAs teach about 20 percent of the course hours on campus. They develop syllabi and lesson plans, grade papers and exams, and write letters of recommendation for undergraduate students applying to get into graduate school or study-abroad opportunities. The GAs work in campus libraries and for essential services like the Office Minority Student Affairs. In other words, these graduate student workers are vital to the quality public education provided at the University of Illinois.
As I wrote in the last issue of the Public i, since April the GEO has been negotiating a new contract with the administration. During these negotiations the union has proposed reasonable improvements to health care and access and equality for graduate student workers. We have asked for fair wage increases that will keep up with inflation and provide the minimum living wage the administration itself says it costs to live in Champaign-Urbana. Finally, we want to keep existing contract language that secures tuition waivers for our members. Tuition Waivers are how universities, like Illinois, are able to hire affordable graduate student labor and compete for high quality students.
Collectively, these proposals will provide working conditions that will make it possible for graduate students, including working class, minority, and international students, to continue to learn and work at the University of Illinois.
To date we have not reached agreement on many of these issues, including health care, wages and tuition waivers.
The administration’s failure to prioritize fair treatment of these essential educators is part of an alarming de-prioritization of instruction at the University of Illinois. Since 2007 the percentage of the University’s budget dedicated to instruction has fallen by 4.5 percent. Going even farther back, since 2001 the student enrollment has grown by nearly thirteen percent, while the number of instructors has not kept pace. Class sizes on campus are on the rise, and the quality of education is suffering because of it—even as students pay more and more in tuition each year.
The GEO’s commitment to ensuring the security of tuition waivers is part of the union’s firm commitment to providing quality instruction on campus.
But in order for the GEO to reach this goal, we need a partner at the bargaining table. When this story goes to print, the GEO will have been working without a contract for nearly three months. That means for one quarter of a year hardworking TAs and GAs have been going to work each day without certainty about the affordability of their health care, their future compensation, or the assurance of their tuition waivers.
Across campus multiple groups and individuals have noticed this mounting uncertainty. They have added their voices to a growing chorus demanding the University administration meet the GEO at the bargaining table with a commitment to talking through these issues and reaching a fair agreement.
This includes a growing, vocal support amongst faculty. The Campus Faculty Association issued a clear statement, “We support the GEO position on tuition waivers. The broad issue is the transparency and collegiality of decision-making on campus.”
Dr. Cary Neslon, Professor Emeritus of English and past president of the national American Association for University Professors also sees the GEO’s struggle to protect tuition waivers as important for the campus at large, issuing a statement that the “economic viability of our graduate programs is very much at stake in this debate.”
Dr. Belden Fields, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and frequent Public i contributor wrote a letter to the News Gazette in support of the GEO, noting “The campus administration has for many years claimed that it strives for inclusion. Its waivers position goes in the exact opposite direction.”
While remaining neutral on the issues, the Urbana-Champaign campus Faculty Senate has passed a resolution urging the negotiations “to advance to a timely and fair resolution.”
Many undergrads have also taken notice of the contract negotiations. The Student Senate passed a resolution urging resolution to the negotiations and recognizing that “graduate employees contribute significantly to the high quality of education at this University.”
Dozens of undergraduates from multiple Registered Student Organizations have signed up to attend a meeting to learn more about the GEO contract negotiations and how their organizations can support their TAs.
One undergraduate student and guest columnist for the campus newspaper the Daily Illini recently dedicated her column to the topic. She wrote, “Having a TA also allows students to receive personal attention and develop relationships with instructors. They aim to break down large lecture concepts, allowing students to become more engaged in the material, which in turn leads students to do better in the course.” She continued “As a top-ranked university with numerous renowned programs, the University should want to do whatever it takes to upkeep their prestigious programs, starting with paying and protecting the people who help teach them.”
The editorial staff at the Daily Illini offered their support in an editorial published on October 16. The editorial explained, “Tuition waivers in higher education should be a given, especially at a research university like this one. To expect that this University can maintain its high quality while its workers are struggling to provide food for themselves, and sometimes their families, is an irresponsible oversight.”
Voice after voice has been added to an ongoing campus discussion about GEO tuition waivers. These voices have expressed their support and an understanding that tuition waivers are essential compensation for Teaching Assistants, and that Teaching Assistants are essential instructors for the University.
The GEO hopes that the administration listens to these voices.
We also hope that more people from campus and the community will add their voices to this effort to protect access to higher education at the University of Illinois. Visit http://www.uigeo.org/action to find out more and to send a letter to the Board of Trustees and Governor’s Office asking them to encourage a fair contract settlement.