Reflections on the GEO Strike a Year Later

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Students and workers are celebrating the first anniversary of the successful strike by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and Local 6300 (AFT/IFT/AFL-CIO), the union that represents over 2,500 graduate assistants and teaching assistants at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Last November, over one thousand graduate employees and their allies joined together in a fight to ensure that graduate education remains accessible to working-class students and people of color in Illinois. After months of unsuccessful negotiations with the university’s administration, GEO members voted overwhelmingly to strike in an effort to protect the tuition waivers that afford us a place in the learning and labor that takes place on this campus. For two rainy days, striking workers shut down buildings on the main quad, formed picket lines, and danced collectively to the beat of a different drum. By the end of the second day we were celebrating a momentous victory for workers on our campus and across the country that included securing unprecedented contractual protections for tuition waivers.
As the GEO’s lead negotiator and one of the strike planners, I learned a lot personally from the strike about both the university and the collective power of workers. However, in the year since the strike, three lessons stand out as offering key insights for current and future struggles.
First, strikes are not spontaneous; strikes are produced. While this may seem obvious to many of us today, the labor involved in mobilizing a strike cannot be understated. The process of building our strike potential took almost two years of concerted planning and labor by organizers. On one level, this labor was highly visible. It involved creating new activists, organizing in departments, planning events, and building up gradually to the levels of mass mobilization required to sustain an open-ended walkout. But, at a more fundamental level, the labor we performed was part of an unseen cognitive battle for the minds and hearts of our fellow workers.
While grievances are ever present, as workers we know that grievances do not inevitably lead to collective action, let alone strikes. Getting people that feel powerless to sacrifice their limited time and resources and, in some cases, take tremendous personal risks to secure a better quality of life for themselves and their peers is no easy task. Organizing at institutions of higher education is no different than in the corporate world, and prior to the GEO strike, the University of Illinois had only experienced two strikes in its 150-year history. Therefore, a key part of building our strike potential was talking with workers about their experiences, solidifying a sense of shared-identity, and empowering each other to believe that collectively we could make a difference.
Second, strikes are easy to fetishize but, ultimately, a strike is just a tactic. People can get very romantic about strikes and for me, at least, it is understandable. Strikes bring workers together and help us believe that collectively we have greater power than we had previously imagined. But sometimes we can imbue strikes with a kind of mythical power that abstracts them from the concrete political conditions in which they operate and, ultimately, succeed or fail. Today, as a loosely knit international movement to “defend” and/or “liberate” education is beginning to take shape, avoiding romanticization and dealing with the hardcore political realities of our own historical moment is particularly critical. In this context, tactics should be selected because of the pressure they can exert on our opponents and the leverage this offers us in terms of securing short-term concessions to the status quo. The GEO strike worked, in my mind, because it articulated a very clear demand (tuition waiver security), exhausted traditional institutional avenues (the bargaining process), and then mobilized workers to withhold their labor disrupting—the campus and bringing negative press attention to the administration. As we move forward, students and workers must grapple with a wide range of tactics looking for those most suitable for manipulating the inverted power relations on campus and beyond. Finally, strikes have unforeseen consequences.
In a very practical sense, the process of building for a strike ensured that the GEO was able to fight off regressive proposals like furloughs as well as secure important contractual gains including tuition waiver security. However, the impact of the strike transcended these basic, albeit invaluable, contract victories. Over the past year, I have had the tremendous privilege to visit with students and union workers from across the country who have been inspired by our strike to act.
In the past year, K-12 educators in Danville and Mahomet have gone out on strike in efforts to protect compensation, benefits, and working conditions. Sadly, these strikes-like the GEO strike-were necessary simply to preserve the status quo and are, thus, reflective of the unethical approaches of management in handling the financial crisis. However, these defensive strikes have transformed the culture of our schools, campuses, and communities and inspired workers in East Central Illinois to believe that we do have the right to fight back and, more importantly, we can win. In the end, the most invaluable lesson these strikes have taught me and other workers is to believe in each other, to work collectively, and to have faith against the odds that a different world is possible.

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