Graduate Employees Unite!

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Over the Memorial Day holiday weekend,
the Graduate Employees’ Organization
(GEO, IFT/AFT 6300) hosted 80 graduate
employee union activists and leaders for
the AGEL (Alliance of Graduate Employee
Locals) conference, a twice-yearly gathering
to reflect on lessons learnt and challenges
ahead. The conference followed a
year in which the GEO had successfully
increased both member numbers and the
breadth of union activity, with active
groups working on areas ranging from
healthcare, to reform of the SPEAK test
(spoken language proficiency test for TAs),
to LGBT concerns, and more. This high
level of engagement was reflected in the
number of GEO members turning out to
attend sessions, with several dozen members
taking part throughout the weekend.
One of the highlights was a discussion
with the grad union at the University of
Michigan about their recent successful
contract victory, in which they talked us
through the timeline of their campaign,
from member engagement and platform
development to the denouement of a walkout
that was cut short when the university
administration caved to the union’s strike
platform. This and other sessions fed into
many productive conversations among
GEO members about the work of focusing
a committed membership on next year’s
contract struggle, where the battle will
continue for living wages, decent healthcare,
and workplaces built on respect.
Such impromptu discussions are, of
course, the hallmark of a successful event,
where the formal sessions are not self-contained,
but bleed into the socializing that
surrounds any such event. Another important
indicator is the existence of a reflective
dialog concerning the situation and structure
of the broader movement. This conference
saw a continuation of discussions
over the relationship between contingent
academic labor and the institution of academic
tenure, a complex issue that demands
nuanced and thoughtful examination.
Other forms of critique were prompted
and encouraged by a keynote address by
Prof. Antonia Darder on Friday evening, in
which she encouraged grad unions to view
themselves as part of broader struggles for
social justice and to critically assess what
that should mean for the structures and
actions of the union movement.
The graduate employee union movement
is one of the most vibrant within the
educational sector, representing a workforce
that is uniquely vulnerable, consistently
exploited, and often conflicted over its status
as ‘workers.’ Here at the University of
Illinois graduate employees’ wages are more
than $2,000 below living wage rates for a
single person. A dual status as both employee
and student can make workers vulnerable
to pressure from faculty, unsure of the
boundaries between academic requirements
and paid labor, and fearful of the repercussions
of challenging overwork or other
unfair practices. International students, in
particular, can be concerned about visa
issues, while graduate students with family
obligations do not fit the assumptions that
often shape university policies.
The work of organizing is often characterized
as being about conversations. This conference,
and the conversations it generates,
will play an important role in shaping a richer
and more effective union movement, as
graduate employees work together for a
voice in the conditions that shape their lives,
moving us closer to the goals of respect, fair
rewards, and quality workplaces.

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