GEO Wins!!

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On Monday, November 16th my union –
the Graduate Employees’ Organization
(GEO), IFT/AFT local 6300, AFL-CIO,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
– began an open-ended strike over
the University administration’s refusal to
sufficiently protect graduate tuition
waivers. Over 1,000 union members and allies walked the
picket lines beneath a cold, bone-chilling rain on the first
day of the work stoppage. On Tuesday morning, with hundreds
back out on the picket lines, both sides returned to
the bargaining room, where the administration quickly
capitulated. After signing a tentative agreement that
included protection for all tuition waivers, the GEO
declared victory and called down the picket lines. At a
general membership meeting later that night, over 450
members unanimously recommended that the GEO strike
committee officially suspend the strike.
During the final pre-strike negotiation session, on Saturday
the 14th, the administration was only willing to
guarantee in-state tuition waivers. For the vast majority of
graduate employees, who are out-of-state students, the
loss of a tuition waiver would effectively force them to
drop out of their program of study. Graduate education
would become even more inaccessible to working and
middle class persons than it already is. Additionally, any
department barred from granting out-of-state waivers
would be unable to attract the most talented and committed
students. The reputation of those departments, along
with the quality of their undergraduate education, would
plummet. Some would disappear entirely.
Why would the administration even consider taking
such a risk? For decades, state funding for public higher
education has been diminishing. Instead of advocating on
behalf of students, administrators have responded by raising
tuition, cutting costs according to corporate models of
management, and seeking outside, often private, revenue.
Research programs have been reoriented toward the generation
of revenues, as opposed to knowledge and wisdom.
Now, instead of responding to budget restrictions by
cutting administrative costs, administrators are seeking
new ways to cut down on costs related to the University’s
core mission of academic instruction. Last year they proposed
stripping tuition waivers for all teaching assistants
(TAs) with 25% FTE appointments. This year the Department
of Chemistry took back the waivers it had promised
to undergraduate TAs. Given this history, the GEO was
fearful that the administration would come after our outof-
state tuition waivers next.
We knew the first day of the strike had to be big. Maximum
disruption. We’d been planning for months, but
nobody knew how it was really going to look. The kickoff
rally was at 7:45am on the Main Quad, and despite the cold
rain, the crowd was big, at least 500 people. Some thought
it was more like 700. Our drum corps was out in full force.
They’d just gotten a couple of big bass drums, and you
could feel the beat in your gut. Kerry Pimblott, our lead
negotiator, addressed the crowd with her English accent. I’d
often reflected on the irony of a Brit leading a campaign in
support of an accessible US public higher education system,
but then again, the Brits know a spot more about universal
access to education than we do. Kerry is as committed as
they come, and she was in form on Monday morning, inciting
the membership to “shut this University down.”
By 8am we were on the picket lines. Draped in ponchos,
we encircled four of the big buildings on the Main
Quad. This is the heart of the University, and it’s where we
have the most organizing strength. Later in the morning,
the administration was saying that the disruption was
minimal. But we knew the truth. Hundreds of class sessions
were suspended. The entire English Building was
deserted, except for one class in the morning. But that was
a supportive professor who wanted his students to experience
a real live labor strike. So he had them cross the picket
line and then discuss their emotions and the issues.
Our own emotions were running high, but we all knew
that if things dragged on beyond a few days, we were
going to have to work hard to keep up the momentum.
Many of our picketers stayed out the entire first day, and
they were exhausted. In an effort to lift their spirits and
end the first day with a bang, the strike committee decided
to unite the various picket lines and march on the
Swanlund administration building. As a member of the
communications committee, I was asked to lead the march
and address the crowd. I told them what they already kne,
that despite the administration’s claims, it could never be
business as usual on our public, land-grant campus so
long as tuition waivers are under threat. They roared their
agreement, and then the drum corp took over. We chanted,
and we danced. As one member aptly put it, this is not
your grandfather’s union.
Later that night the bargaining team called me in to discuss
our press strategy. They told me they had a surprise.
On Monday, the interim provost/chancellor, Robert Easter,
had sent an email to the entire campus community stating,
in essence, that the GEO was striking over a non-issue.
According to the email, tuition waiver practice was not
going to be changed. This was not, of course, what we had
heard in the negotiation room just two days before, but it
gave us all the leverage we needed. The bargaining team
had taken Easter’s email language, some of it verbatim, and
written it into the proposal they would present during
Tuesday’s bargaining session. It was a brilliant plan. If the
administration wouldn’t accept their own language, then
we would expose their hypocrisy in the press. That would
be the job of the communications committee.
Though we were looking forward to having such a clear
advantage, we were even happier the next day to find out
that the administration had realized their predicament.
They spent over an hour looking at our proposal, but they
must have seen no way out. Our gambit had worked.
Once again we gathered the various picket lines for a
march, but this time it was more of a victory lap. From the
center of the main Quad we marched across the grass,
directly toward the steps of Foelinger Hall. We were a phalanx
of pulsing, drum beating solidarity. “Who are we?” a
few of us called. The response was a united roar, “G–E–O!”
Once assembled on the steps, with the press out in force, I
had the great pleasure of announcing our victory to the
members and allies who had done so much work to earn
it. The response was jubilant, euphoric, crazed. clapping and shouting. Dancing and hugging,
ensued, smiles all around.
Then I passed the mic to Kerry, who—
despite the many leadership roles in our
organization and her own humble
protests—is clearly our leader of leaders.
She’d shown the greatest foresight, putting
together a strike working group back in
September. The hard work had paid off
now, and Kerry deserved to stand in the
center for a moment. There was a long list
of thanks, and a few tears. You could
almost see her shoulders loosening up as
the weight was lifted off of them.
We’d scored a victory, for ourselves, for
the University, for organized labor, and for
public higher education across the nation
and around the world. We hope our stand
will motivate our sisters and brothers in
the GEO at the University of Chicago who
remain in negotiations with their administration.
We also stand in solidarity with
students and workers in California, who
continue to organize in opposition to catastrophic
funding cuts and tuition hikes.
The fight is far from over. I’m on vacation
now, but Kerry just sent me a text message:
“When u come back i want to talk with u
about the next sites of struggle.” It’s a conversation
I’ll be happy to have.
For more information on the GEO strike,
visit To see video of the pickets and
rallies mentioned above, go to

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