As I write this, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6300 is 10 months into the contract negotiating process with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign administration. So far there have been 19 bargaining sessions. The GEO presented its proposal at the first session on March 7. The University presented its proposal on August 25—five months later.
The GEO is the sole bargaining agent for Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Graduate Assistants (GAs) at UIUC.
As of 2022 there are:
- 2,708 faculty
- 2,852 TAs and GAs
- 20,409 graduate students
- 1,293 professional students (studying law, veterinary medicine, and medicine)
- 34,942 undergraduate students
- Total student enrollment: 56,644
The student to faculty ratio at UIUC is 21:1; the national average is 15:1. At UIUC, student enrollment continues going up and the number of faculty is low.
Approximately 14 percent of graduate students are hired by the University through assistantships. Teaching assistants (TAs) provide teaching-related support to faculty. They grade papers and exams, teach lab sections and discussion sections, develop syllabi and lesson plans, and hold office hours. They might also teach an entire course.
GAs work in the campus libraries and for essential services. For instance, in the Office of Minority Student Affairs, GAs tutor, advise, and mentor minority undergraduate students.
In other words, the graduate student workers are vital to the quality public education provided at UIUC. Assistantships are the embodiment of “Learning and Labor,” and are a great help for the working class, minorities, and international students. Wages, hours, and working conditions are considered mandatory subjects of bargaining.
GEO Goal: Protect Tuition Waivers
For years, protecting tuition waivers has been the single most important issue for GEO contract negotiations.
Tuition waivers are not limited to graduate employees. Tuition waivers are handed out by the University as a benefit to nearly every category of University employee: faculty, academic professionals, and Civil Service employees, as well as retirees. Children of employees can get 50-percent tuition waivers. To all other University employees, tuition waivers are a benefit, but to graduate student employees, the tuition waiver is a major part of their compensation.
TAs are cheaper than faculty.
Title Avg. pay Count
Professor $156,924 865
Associate professor $108,557 563
Assistant professor $98,533 683
Instructor $69,172 88
Lecturer $68,387 185
TAs and GAs: The current minimum pay for a 50-percent appointment on a 9-month basis is $19,300. The other part of their compensation is the tuition waiver.
Graduate Student Tuition for One Year
Tuition Rates Fall 2022–Spring 2023
- Student level: graduate / credit hours: 12 or more (full-time)
- For Illinois residents: tuition range: $13,640–$35,874; median: $18,000
- Additional costs: fees: $5,072; food and housing; books and supplies: $1,800; other expenses.
- Non-Illinois residents and international: tuition range: $25,992–$49,200; median: $32,034
- Additional costs: fees: $5,222; etc.
[These numbers were produced by the UIUC Cost Calculator.]
The University currently waives some of the fees with assistantships: the Academic Facility Maintenance Fund Assessment (AFMFA) Fee, Library/Information Technology Fee, and Service Fee.
Other Expenses include “allowances for transportation, clothing, recreation, and other living expenses.”
TAs and GAs are essential employees to the University. Even with the university waiving tuition and some fees, TAs and GAs are a lot cheaper than faculty.
GEO: 24-hour Internet Access is Needed for TAs to Do their Jobs
The GEO is asking for internet access to be provided by the University whether an individual is working on or off campus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the University helped some employees pay for internet access so they could work from home. As part of their contract negotiations, the GEO is asking for the University to help pay for internet access. In response, the administration said that they could provide it on a case-by-case basis, so it did not need to be in the contract. But all TAs need 24-hour internet access in order to do their jobs.
Grading has never been restricted to nine-to-five hours. And without child care help from the University, employees that are parents need to be home. Now more than ever before, less of their jobs take place during regular hours. Nearly all UIUC classes have online aspects and many are completely online. For instance, in 2021 online graduate programs accounted for 45 percent of all graduate student enrollment. Completely online programs mean that there are remote students—remote students can and do live in other time zones. TAs need 24-hour internet access, full stop.
Space use was different before the pandemic. TAs and GAs were able to find space in the U of I buildings, crammed together in TA offices, coming in to work even when they were sick. Now there are are more TAs needing the fewer and fewer spaces. TAs and GAs often have to share spaces with undergraduate students, who might also be their students. Libraries are not private enough for grading. TAs need to be able to lock materials when they go to the restroom or take a lunch break. There are not enough dorms for TAs and GAs to live in University-owned dormitories where internet is part of the infrastructure.
All TAs and GAs need 24-hour internet access in order to do their jobs.
The GEO is Asking for Year-Round Health Insurance.
Currently, graduate employees get only nine months of health insurance.
All other University employees already get year-round health insurance. According to the official list of benefits “For Faculty, Specialized Faculty, Academic Professionals, and Civil Service,” “The University provides health, dental, and life insurance to staff members who are SURS-eligible and on appointments equal to at least 50-percent time and at least nine continuous months.”
International graduate workers have limited options for summer work off-campus due to federal restrictions. Summer off-campus employment is not likely to include health insurance. Gap health insurance is very expensive for an individual. Failing to have health insurance puts one at risk financially and could easily be a reason a student drops out—wasting the entire investment in that person/student/worker.
GEO Goal: Restrooms
The GEO is asking the University to install infant changing stations in campus restrooms and at least one all-gender restroom in each building. Simply put, such changes would bring UIUC into the 21st century as an employer. The GEO will probably have to drop this, so the other unions (there are four academic and 12 Civil Service bargaining units at UIUC) and student organizations will need to bring this up as an issue until the University listens.
Karen Medina grew up in Champaign, served in the Peace Corps, has degrees in Animal Science and Library and Information Science, and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
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