Recently the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the union for graduate student teaching assistants and research assistants at the University of Illinois, made a few changes to the union’s organizational structure. More specifically, the GEO added an elected Solidarity Officer to our Coordinating Committee and constitutionally recognized the Solidarity Committee as a permanent part of the union.
These changes formalized the GEO’s commitment to solidarity. However, what exactly does that mean? Solidarity is a somewhat vague term in this context, but it is actually a crucial function of the GEO. It simply means getting involved with and having a presence on campus and in the local community.
Past GEO president, Ingbert Floyd explained the importance of solidarity as “one of the core values of the union.” According to Floyd, “when certain parts of the community are negatively affected its incumbent upon us to step up and act in solidarity with the community.”
A former officer-at-large, Rafter Ferguson, further explained: “We’ve seen where the narrow focus on union member interests has gotten the union movement over the past decades. The antidote to that thinking, and the dead end it leads us to, is for unions to really regard ourselves as one sector within a broad, diverse, social justice movement—a peoples’ movement. In this context, solidarity has to take on a much deeper significance and broader scope.”
“A university is not a vacuum. As grad students, we are situated here in this community.” Lailye Weidman, a GEO member from the Dance Department added.
In constitutionally recognizing the Solidarity Committee, the GEO is in agreement with this sentiment. We cannot and should not operate independently of the larger context we exist in. The work of this committee builds on past efforts of GEO members who have collaborated with community members and other student organizations around issues of social injustice. Notably, in response to the 2009 shooting and death of fifteen-year-old Kiwane Carrington by a Champaign police officer, the GEO, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, and the National Action Network organized a rally calling for justice for Carrington.
Since this event, the GEO has intermittently engaged in solidarity actions as they come up. Until now, however, the GEO had no permanent, structural venue for building solidarity and maintaining awareness of issues affecting the community at large. Scott Humphrey, an active member of the Solidarity Committee explained that the new structure allows the GEO “the flexibility to respond to things as they come up.”
This past fall, the Solidarity Committee became involved with a number of community causes and issues including the No More Jails in Champaign County campaign, the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, petitioning for a state-wide progressive income tax, and raising awareness about the crisis of rising student debt. This spring, in addition to continuing their work on these issues, the Solidarity Committee will provide small grants to campus student organizations that are working on social justice causes.
The Solidarity Committee, together with the local Jobs with Justice chapter, will also be hosting a series of “Progressive Potlucks” beginning in the spring. The potlucks are intended to be a gathering space for members of progressive campus and community groups, where they can share ideas, meet one another and build productive relationships. The next progressive potluck will take place February 8, 6 p.m. at the University YMCA (1001 South Wright Street).
To learn more about the Solidarity Committee, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.