GEO Fights for a Living Wage

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BARGAINING IN AN ATMOSPHERE of fiscal crisis is difficult. There
is a temptation to maneuver conservatively, hoping only to
hold one‘s ground. However, for those of us who are graduate
employees, the current and future stewards of higher
education, the ground is shifting beneath us. The proliferation
of contingent instructors on college and university campuses
is already well entrenched. Contrary to the increasingly
fantastical picture of university faculty as securely tenured
and handsomely paid, contingent instructors have no job
security, work on a part-time or temporary basis, and are
almost always paid less than the permanent full-time faculty
who do the same work. Nationwide, roughly 70% of higher
education instructional units are taught by contingent
instructors: adjuncts, graduate employees, visiting faculty,
post-doctoral associates, or other employee designations that
are euphemisms for “more work for less pay.“
Calls on the part of graduate employees for equitable and
just pay and working conditions are often dismissed as naïve
and unrealistic. After all, the logic goes, graduate students are
like apprentices, working hard for little reward now in order to
achieve the security and prestige of a tenured faculty position
in the future. Yet these positions are increasingly rare, while
enrollment in graduate degree programs climbs steadily. The
inevitable result is a pool of qualified workers who, out of desperation,
compete for jobs as contingent instructors, the only
positions available for the vast majority of applicants.
At present, nationwide hiring freezes and budget cuts in
higher education are compounding this cycle. The jobs that
were scarce five years ago are simply non-existent this year.
At the same time, universities are taking graduate employees
unable to find work and rolling them directly into their own
pools of adjunct instructors, creating, in the extreme case, an
endless supply of overqualified, underpaid, contingent labor.
Is this the future of higher education? As universities,
including the University of Illinois, adopt a market-driven corporate
model, it is hard to see any alternative. As public universities
accept diminishing government funds, they come to
rely on tuition as the primary source of revenue, creating an
incentive system that puts profits over educational priorities.
Meanwhile, students bear the burden and debt of increasing
tuition because they believe they are investing in future
careers. For many, however, the reality is that, they again find
themselves holding credentials for jobs that have been converted
from stable careers to contingent positions, a phenomenon
made possible by a surplus of qualified workers and the
exploitative opportunities of neoliberal economic imperialism.
Though it is by no means the only solution, unionization
of students and workers is a crucial response to this worsening
economic outlook. Organized labor in higher education
provides an immediate mechanism to address the economic
needs of workers who are increasingly exploited. Moreover,
organized labor in higher education provides an urgently
needed rebuttal and democratic alternative to the shortsighted
corporate governance that leads to the proliferation
of contingent workers on campus, skyrocketing tuition, and
the privatization of public institutions of higher education.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization represents more
than 2,700 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants at
the University of Illinois. The GEO negotiates contracts,
resolves grievances, and protects the rights of graduate
employees. The GEO also works in solidarity with other
unions and progressive organizations both at the University
and in the larger Champaign-Urbana community, toward
equality, dignity, and justice for working people of all occupations.
On Tuesday, April 21, the GEO met with the University‘s
bargaining team to begin negotiating a new contract.
Notwithstanding the University‘s claims that this is a time
for “belt-tightening,” the GEO contract proposal seeks simply
to protect the interests of some of the most exploited
workers on campus who face low incomes, enormous
obstacles to raising children, inadequate healthcare, and the
erosion of basic benefits that make it possible to pursue a
graduate degree in the first place.
An important component of the GEO contract proposal is
the provision of a living wage for all graduate employees.
Under the current graduate employee contract, the minimum
for a 9-month, 50% appointment is $13,430; this is the standard
appointment for most graduate employees and it is the
maximum appointment available to most international graduate
students. Meanwhile, the University itself publishes an
estimated annual cost of living of $16,086 (www.osfa. Almost 60% of
teaching assistants at the University make less than this
amount, and 30% earn the minimum stipend, $2,656 less
than the University‘s own estimate of the annual cost of living.
None of those figures take into account the nearly $1,000
in fees that graduate employees must remunerate to the University
during the course of the academic year.
The current GEO contract expires on August 15,
2009. Negotiations are expected to continue throughout
the summer.

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