On December 4th, the members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois approved a new contract with the administration of the University that will maintain and protect tuition waivers for the next five years.
Tuition waivers were the single most important issue for the GEO during contract negotiations—waivers are how universities like Illinois attract and retain top-tier graduate student employees. Without waivers many working class students would not be able to afford to attend or work at the University.
Since 2009 the administration has attempted to erode tuition waivers for graduate students, especially in the College of Fined and Applied Arts. The administration had violated its previous contract with the GEO and charged thousands of dollars in tuition to graduate students who teach courses such as Music, Theater or Dance.
In addition, in a side agreement to the contract, the university administration agreed to abide by the recent Illinois Education Labor Relations Board decision regarding these contract violations and to repay affected assistants in the College of Fine and Applied Arts that unfairly had to pay a portion of their tuition.
Since April, the GEO, which represents more than 2,400 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants, had been in negotiations with the administration. Despite meeting more than twenty times, throughout the Spring, Summer and early Fall little movement was made during the negotiations until the GEO asked for the assistance of a federal mediator and took a strike vote.
The final two negotiation sessions were held on November 28th and November 29th. As the bargaining team of the union met with the administration for more than twelve hours over the course of those two days, hundreds of GEO members attended the sessions and held a vigil at the Illini Union, the student union on campus. The event was dubbed “Unity at the Union.” With final exams for undergrads approaching GEO members graded, held office hours, and facilitated student meetings at the Illini Union, to demonstrate the essential work they do for the campus.
On November 28th approximately thirty GEO members and their allies decided to spend the night at the student union, past the building’s official closing time as an act of civil disobedience to demand the administration settle the tuition waiver issue. The Student Union is the symbolic center of community life. Campus security allowed the vigil to continue into the night without disruption.
Many GEO members as well as campus and community groups showed their support Unity at the Union Event. Members of the Service Employees International Union, who clean the buildings and work in the dining halls, stopped by before and after their shifts to lend encouragement and show support. Faculty members held meetings and graded papers at tables at the Illini Union with signs supporting GEO. Undergraduate students involved with the International Socialist Organization brought a large banner to the event with a message of support. GEO members stopped by with donuts and other treats for those at the vigil.
It was in this context of overwhelming support and solidarity that the administration agreed to sign contract language on tuition waivers.
All of these groups and individuals showed their support because they understood that the fight for tuition waiver security is part of a shared struggle for access and equality at the University of Illinois.
To all of these groups, along with the Campus Labor Coalition, Jobs With Justice, and Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice that have stood by the GEO at rallies and pickets for many years, the GEO would like to say THANK YOU.
Tuition waiver security has been contractually guaranteed for the next five years. Yet there remain many barriers to access to the University of Illinois as well as issues that threaten a fair and just Urbana-Champaign community. The GEO is ready to stand together to continue to find solutions for these issues together.