Graduate Employees Lobby Illinois Legislators to Protect Workers’ Rights

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The fight for workers’ rights in the U.S. has always been political, but this spring, as state legislators and governors proposed bills to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights and devastate public services, including schools, the battle for labor took main stage. Union busting efforts in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have threatened public sector workers’ rights for hundreds of thousands of people. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO, AFT/IFT Local 6300) has been engaged in the labor movement and social justice initiatives in Champaign-Urbana for years, but recently recognized the inherent importance of action through the political process and formed a Lobbying and Legislative Committee.

Labor unions are well-known for lobbying, but usually this aspect is handled by large parent unions employing professional lobbyists. However, in the case of the GEO, higher education unions make up a small percentage of AFT/IFT membership, and graduate locals make up an even smaller portion, so it is easy for our specific interests to fall out of focus. GEO’s Lobbying and Legislative Committee is a group of rank and file graduate employees doing research, meeting with legislators and lobbying specifically for the rights of students and workers at the University of Illinois. They have been instrumental as a voice for higher education employees and students in Springfield—a voice that has been a vital component in protecting graduate employees’ rights this year. Active member of the Legislative Committee, Andy Bruno, a graduate student in the history department believes these efforts are more important now than ever, “With mounting pressures to transform education from a public good to a private privilege, it is more important than ever that the GEO engage in the legislative process. We can make our voices heard!”

Last summer, the University of Illinois violated the GEO contract when they reduced tuition waivers for some graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts (FAA).  Less than a year after going on strike to attain language to protect tuition waivers, incoming students in certain programs had their tuition waivers reduced to “base rate,” which only covers in-state tuition, even though the majority of graduate students matriculating here are from other states. Many FAA graduate students provide the necessary, skilled labor required to run the Krannert Center for the Performance Arts, a world-renowned performance space on campus that attracts hundreds of productions each year. During the Spring 2010 semester, 75% of FAA students made less than $800 a month for their work; the difference between base-rate and full tuition—what these students would be responsible for paying—is $13,266.

Longstanding practice in these departments had been to cover full tuition since many graduate students come to UIUC from out-of-state. Unlike many other universities, gaining in-state residency for tuition purposes at UIUC requires students to live and work in the state (employment cannot be through the university) for at least one year before beginning their education. Departments made scholarships available to cover most of the almost $8,000 difference, but unlike a full tuition waiver, the scholarships are not guaranteed to continue and out of pocket expenses for these students still increased by $1,000-$2000 per year.

Because the GEO saw this as a clear contract violation, there was legal recourse, but the grievance process can be lengthy and cannot provide immediate financial relief to students. Currently, the grievance process is ongoing; GEO and the University are set for arbitration for this case next month. In addition to the arduous legal process, GEO members took direct action on campus all year to increase public awareness of this issue and pressure the administration to rescind the tuition waiver changes. FAA tuitions waivers were the focus of a flash mob at Krannert’s opening night, numerous rallies, organizing sessions and town hall meetings.

Now, through the work of the Lobbying and Legislative Committee, GEO has a third approach. These members communicate regularly with our local representatives in Springfield, are exploring options to relax residency requirements (thus eliminating the differential between a “base rate” and “full” tuition waiver), and have even testified to the State Board of Higher Education to include more graduate employees in the bargaining unit. The Committee is also pondering solutions to the recent revelation that Graduate Assistants and Pre-professional Graduate Assistants owe a large tax liability (upwards of 30%) for their tuition waivers. The GEO and University reached an agreement to provide emergency loans for students affected in the Spring 2011 semester, but the only permanent solution will have to be a change in tax law—surely a tough fight, but one that GEO members and the Lobbying and Legislative Committee are willing to fight for workers on this campus.

About Natalie Uhl

Natalie Uhl is a graduate employee pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She has been a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization for three years.
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