GEO Struggles For A Living Wage And The Future

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brought mainstream attention to the administration’s misplaced
priorities, labor activists have long been familiar with
the contradictions. It doesn’t surprise Peter Campbell therefore,
to know that the Chancellor approved using $300,000
of discretionary funds to provide scholarships so that twenty-
four well-connected but mediocre and undeserving students
could attend the law school. “The administration
might have chosen to improve wages, contribute more to
health care, or expand childcare options. Instead, they
extended privileges and considerable financial resources to
the politically well-connected. And now they’re spending
half a million dollars in legal fees to deal with the blowback.”
Campbell, a Teaching Assistant in the department of
Communications and the Communications Officer of the
Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), spoke during
the GEO’s Rally for a Living Wage on September 9th.
The GEO, which represents over 2,700 Teaching and
Graduate Assistants (TAs and GAs) on the UIUC campus, is a
local chapter of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). The
GEO has been in negotiations with University administrators
over the terms of a new contract since April 21. “On the first
day of bargaining we presented a comprehensive proposal to
the administration,” said Kerry Pimblott, the GEO’s lead
negotiator. “Ever since, they’ve been stalling. They spent
months trying to force unnecessary ‘ground rules’ on us, and
they didn’t even offer a proposal until August 11th, just four
days before our contract expired.” Although graduate
employees have been working under an expired contract
since August 15th, negotiations have not accelerated. In fact,
the GEO asked for the federal mediator to return for their
most recent negotiation session. Nonetheless, GEO members
are certain that the only way to get justice at the table is to
organize and mobilize on campus. Hence the Rally for a Living
Wage, which brought out over 250 students, faculty supporters,
and fellow labor activists from allied campus unions.
The focus on living wages stems from a major discrepancy
between the administration’s rhetoric and policy. The Office of
Student Financial Aid says that, for a single academic year, the
minimum cost of living for a graduate student in Urbana-
Champaign is $16,086. Currently, over 50 percent of TAs and
GAs at UIUC make less than that amount. Worse yet, the cost
of living figure doesn’t include over $1,000 of fees and health
insurance costs. Since the minimum salary for a TA or GA
working a 50 percent appointment is $13,430,* many graduate
employees are almost $4,000 short of getting by. For many
students, especially parents or internationals who cannot take
a second job off campus, the only option is to go further into
debt. According to Campbell, “The current economic crisis is
partly the result of unsustainable levels of consumer debt. It
doesn’t seem like the administration should want to contribute
further to that problem.”
GEO members, however, are not organizing strictly out
of self interest. “We’re very aware that we’re not alone in this
fight. All workers deserve a living wage and decent benefits.
We certainly hope that the awareness we raise and whatever
gains we achieve will benefit our allies in the Campus Labor
Coalition,” said Pimblott. The coalition includes locals from
the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME), the Association of Academic Professionals
(AAP), the Campus Faculty Association (CFA), the
International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), the
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and
Moving Picture Machine Operators (IATSE), and the Service
Employees International Union (SEIU).
”The administration is taking advantage of the economic
crisis to argue that they don’t have the money to provide
grad employees with a living wage, and they’d be happy to
use that argument for all of their lower-paid workers, but it
really doesn’t hold water,” said Campbell, who points out
that the UIUC budget was increased by 1.1% this year.
Moreover, the money they were asked to hold in reserve
last year has been released, the endowment performed better
than many universities and has recovered much of the
value it lost, while tens of millions of dollars in federal
stimulus funds are still available. “At the Board of Trustees
meeting they highlight the positives, but at the bargaining
table they tell an entirely different story.”
Nor is the GEO negotiating for purely monetary benefits.
“That’s what really puts the lie to the administrators’
arguments,” said Pimblott. “They say they don’t have the
money, but they won’t even work with us on non-monetary
issues.” For example, the administration’s proposal
would make the university’s own human resources office
the sole adjudicator for any discrimination grievances. “In
essence, the administration is saying that if grad employees
feel they’ve been discriminated against for reasons of race,
gender, age, or a host of other categories, then the employer,
and not an impartial body, should decide the case,” said
Campbell. “It’s the fox watching the hen house.”
Pimblott also points out that the issue goes beyond the
local. “Across the country, public universities are adopting
a corporate model. The priority is shifting from knowledge
to revenue generation.” One result of this shift is that there
are less full-time, tenured professors and more part-time,
adjunct faculty. According to the American Federation of
Teachers (AFT), during the previous decade the number of
full-time, tenured faculty members at public research universities
fell from 34.1 to 28.9 percent of the total faculty.
During that same period, part-time, contingent employment
rose, with the percentage of graduate employees
within the faculty climbing from 37.5 to 41 percent. At
UIUC, according to Campbell, 23.1 percent of all course
hours are taught by graduate employees. “We’re clearly not
just fighting for a handful of extra bucks. We’re doing our
part to counter a historic shift toward cheaper sources of
labor. This is about the future of the United State’s publicly
funded higher education system.”
For more information about the GEO and the current
state of negotiations, go to:
*University assistantships are classified according to the
number of hours worked. A 50 percent appointment corresponds
to 20 hours of work per week and is the most common
level of appointment. Workers in some departments,
however, are granted only 25 or 33% appointments.

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