Graduate workers across the US have been hard-hit by the skyrocketing inflation induced by federal mismanagement of monetary policy that is being felt by all too many working-class people. The laughable wage increases that were “handed” to many low-paid workers do not adjust to inflation, leading many to have to draw from the little savings they have. All of this is happening as the University of Illinois’s president received a $40,000 bonus and the Executive Director of Labor and Employee Relations was awarded a $5,000 bonus. To add salt to the wound, labor unions since 2018 have been bargaining with the Supreme Court’s anti-labor ruling in Janus v. AFSCME—a decision that has hindered unions from collecting union dues from non-members (called “fair-share dues,” since negotiated contracts cover members and non-members alike). As a result, union membership across the US has dwindled. UIUC Graduate workers bargained for a whole year to win a contract that current and future graduate students will benefit from.
The UIUC Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) is a democratically run labor union that represents graduates who work as teaching and graduate assistants. The bargaining team (BT) was elected by GEO members in 2022, and they immediately met for extended hours to draft a new contract, since the extant contract was due to expire that August. Five months prior to that date, the administration and the BT had their first bargaining session, where the GEO offered a comprehensive proposal. To the GEO’s dismay, the next five months saw the administration come unprepared to the bargaining sessions, with no counterproposal and instead only endless unfocused and irrelevant questions. The GEO’s proposal included an increase in wages exceeding inflation; year-round health care (graduate workers are covered for the duration of their employment, and many do not have summer appointments, which means no health insurance in the summer); modifications to understandings of discrimination; extended leaves and holidays; and adjustments to the grievance procedure.
Bargaining is About Power
On August 25, 2022, the GEO organized a massive rally at the University’s quad where allies from different unions (AFSCME, SEIU, NTFC, and others), as well as undergraduates, joined graduate workers to chant and pack the bargaining room, with the expectation that the administration would provide its first counterproposal. Despite the large attendance, the administration presented a measly 3.5-percent wage increase, four years of summer health care out of the five years of the contract, and no noticeable changes on everything else the GEO had proposed. The anger emanating from members inside the room was indicative that the GEO would not accept this proposal. In the subsequent bargaining sessions, the administration continued its obstinance by presenting only comprehensive package proposals (which could only be accepted as a whole, as opposed to tentatively agreeing on select articles). The stagnating bargaining sessions compelled members to resume public action.
Bargaining is about power, not just providing rational statements that will make the administration accept the demands of the union. Successful negotiations require showing the power that labor has and using it as leverage to achieve demands. Bargaining is only successful through collective struggle and power.
The GEO phonebanked, visited offices, and rallied members to attend the December 1 session. The GEO showed up and packed the room with more than 140 members. GEO also invited members to share their testimonies pertaining to problematic conditions of employment and the necessity for child care. Seeing the union’s power, the administration decided to abandon its package approach in its counterproposal, which marked a new milestone in our bargaining cycle.
New Year! New Contract
Graduate workers had been working throughout the fall semester on an expired contract. Given the lingering inflation and stagnating wages, the union was committed to mobilizing members outside of the bargaining sessions to stay abreast of what was at stake (i.e., accepting a non-progressive contract, or even a regressive one). The GEO’s departmental stewards rolled out coffee carts and snacks, visited graduate-student offices in various buildings, conversed with their members as well as with non-members on the importance of engagement, and organized a number of town halls that filled auditoria to explain how unions work and why it is important to join. Furthermore, a common misconception—that unions are service-based organizations, where members merely pay dues in return for a service—was debunked during these events. While unions’ role is to implement contracts, file grievances, and collectively bargain, they are also a community of workers who have common struggles and joys, share interests, and have the ability to forge long-lasting relationships. By showing these multiple faces of unions, the GEO ramped up participation during the early weeks of the year. This was largely due to the members’ increased engagement with the bargaining process, which allowed them to integrate their voices into the BT’s bargaining strategy. The mobilized members attended the first bargaining session of the year and saw the union and the administration tentatively agree on a number of non-economic articles (expanded leaves and holidays, guaranteed tuition waivers, and a no-strike/no-lockout provision).
The wins gained in bargaining sessions added to the momentum and strengthened the conviction that bargaining is about power—mobilized and engaged members. During one of the spring sessions, after receiving a less than four-percent wage-increase proposal, members staged a walkout protest in the middle of the session, leaving just the university negotiators and the BT in the bargaining room. This pressured the administration to agree to more frequent bargaining sessions and make substantial movement toward the GEO’s demands.
A Victory for the Collective Effort: The Weight of History
After numerous late-night BT meetings, several general membership meetings, many town halls, and 26 bargaining sessions, the GEO won a four-year contract that not only cemented prior victories, but also guaranteed wage increases above inflation (10 percent in the first year, and 15 percent spread over the following three years), back pay, year-round health care, and a reduction in student fees. (Being a graduate worker is one of the few jobs where workers pay, as opposed to getting paid, to work and use the facilities in their working location.) The March 24 bargaining session lasted more than seven hours, and more than 300 members attended it. Power translates to material change!
This year’s victory was not random or lucky. It took time, dedication, and mobilization. It was not an easy triumph. Just as the legacy of the GEO’s conception twenty years ago is being felt right now, we owe what we enjoy today to the previous generations’ struggles—the fruit of having a progressive union that powerfully bargains for contracts and does not beg. This is the weight of history and solidarity. Every GEO member who signed a membership card, attended membership meetings or a bargaining session, helped with distributing flyers, talked with office and lab mates, and supported the GEO in gestures both minute and grand, this victory is ours: it is a collective one.
GEO’s gains this year, which will be enjoyed by current and future students, add to our collective history. When new graduate students join UIUC, they are joining the people who struggled before them for the progressive contract we won for the next several years. Our fight and victory boosts workers rights in all of Champaign-Urbana. As graduate workers, our win helps build our capacity for solidarity with the larger working-class population of this community.
Essam Abdelrasul Bubaker Elkorghli is a Libyan PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, researching Libya’s contemporary history and imperialism in modern education. He is a local labor organizer with the GEO and member of their bargaining team.