By Patrick Kimutis and Bruce Kovanen
The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the union representing graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is continuing a years-long fight to win tens of thousands of dollars of withheld compensation owed to fourteen former international students from the Masters in Computer Science (MCS) program. In January, 2016, a neutral and legally binding arbitration process determined that the University Administration was in violation of the GEO’s contract with the university in withholding this form of compensation from teaching assistants enrolled in the MCS program. According to the GEO’s contract with the university, teaching assistants receive tuition waivers, a form of compensation that waives the costs of tuition in exchange for the labor performed. Because of the high cost of tuition, and the low wages graduate employees receive (the vast majority of graduate employee wages are 30% or more under the university’s published living wage), the tuition waiver is the primary form of compensation.
In 2013, GEO learned that the Department of Computer Science (CS) was enacting a policy to eliminate waiver-generating assistantships for graduate students enrolled in MCS. GEO met with campus administrators, who agreed not to enact the policy. In Fall 2014, incoming MCS graduate students were told that this policy had been enacted; they could not hold assistantships in the CS department, but they could find employment in other campus departments that would come with a tuition waiver. Many of them were highly qualified in other fields and were offered waiver-generating assistantships in other departments; however, those offers were rescinded when CS began demanding that any unit hiring an MCS student pay the CS department the cost of the student’s tuition in cash, rather than just waiving it. In effect, this blacklisted the students from waiver-generating positions, because employing units were unwilling to pay tuition in cash to the CS Department. In many cases, the waiver-generating assistantship was converted to an hourly position, so the MCS assistant was working for drastically reduced compensation, often alongside non-MCS peers doing the same work and receiving a tuition and fee waiver. Hourly employees are denied additional rights like union representation, contributions to health insurance premiums, and other fee waivers.
When MCS graduate students came to GEO and explained the situation, the GEO initiated their grievance procedure, culminating in arbitration in which the federal arbiter sided with the union and found the University Administration in violation of the contract. However, the arbiter left the remedy up to the parties, and the GEO has since been fighting the Administration to reimburse fourteen identified students who performed hourly work that should have been compensated with a tuition waiver. Several of these former students cannot even afford to go back to their home country due to the debt they accrued while being forced to pay tuition to UIUC. All fourteen of the identified students are international, and some had to put their families’ houses up as collateral to finance their time working and studying at UIUC. Their family homes are not safe until the debt is paid.
The Administration, for its part, has not only not paid these students back, but has stonewalled the GEO. Associate University Counsel Craig Hoefer has repeatedly ignored GEO emails and phone calls, delayed meetings pertaining to the grievance, and refused to provide information that would help the union determine if there are additional students who are owed compensation. Craig Hoefer has had documentation from the fourteen affected former students since February 2017, and since that time has refused all of GEO’s attempts to communicate about the case. The Administration’s refusal to provide these students with the compensation they are owed has not only had massively detrimental effects on these individuals’ lives, but also speaks to a broader attempt to devalue graduate labor at the University of Illinois. In the ongoing contract negotiations with the GEO that began in March of this year, the Administration has proposed changes to the tuition waiver language that would open the door for them to impose similar policies on graduate employees across campus. Tuition waivers are a necessary mechanism for making higher education accessible to anyone but the super rich. Almost all graduate students at UIUC are non-residents for tuition purposes; the minimum yearly tuition rate for non-resident and international graduate students is $26,502 with some programs costing nearly $50,000 per year.
Since the election of Trump and the concomitant rise in xenophobia, the UIUC Administration has repeatedly voiced its support for international students, who comprise 44% of the university’s graduate student population. Their actions, however, tell a different story. We’re asking members of the community to email Scott Rice, Campus Legal Counsel, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Craig Hoefer, Associate Legal Counsel, at email@example.com, to ask them why they have been unresponsive to GEO’s calls and emails, and to demand a response. If this bothers you, let them know! You can use a template, posted below, to start your email.
If you’d like to learn more about this issue, please contact the GEO at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Mr. Rice and Mr. Hoefer,
I am writing in support of the GEO’s efforts to secure reimbursement for MCS graduate students affected by a recent arbitration decision. I decry your silence and inaction, and I demand that you respond to the GEO’s repeated attempts to settle the terms of the arbitrator’s decision.