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As Strike Nears Second Week, UIC Graduate Workers Issue Open Letter To Gov. Pritzker

As spring break begins at the University of Illinois-Chicago, teaching assistants and graduate assistants with the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) remain on strike. Normal operations at the university were brought to a standstill last week due to the work stoppage, with students and faculty overwhelmingly expressing support for the GEO and blaming the dispute on the recalcitrance of the administration.

Over spring break, daily pickets will pause temporarily because classes are not in session, though other small actions are planned and will be announced. GEO and the administration have scheduled three more bargaining sessions this week, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. If the strike continues after spring break, daily picketing will resume on April 1.

Negotiations are currently stalled over the administration's still unexplained position that it will not, under any circumstances, consider partial waivers, freezes, or caps to the exorbitant fees graduate workers are required to pay despite the vital labor they provide.

These include the $862-per-year General Fee, which is set to increase to $962 next year. In comparison, at the Urbana-Champaign campus, the General Fee is $580 per year.

Another is the $260-per-year International Student Fee, which affects nearly half of all the graduate employees GEO represents. The discriminatory International Student Fee was only created in 2013 and was initially $160 per year before increasing by 62% in 2015.

Graduate workers are required to pay such fees even when they have reached the stage of doctoral candidate and are no longer taking any classes.

The administration refuses to offer any relief whatsoever on these fees, and insists that it be allowed to unilaterally impose new fees or fee increases on union-represented graduate employees at any time.

Such fees serve as an indirect pay cut to graduate workers and must be addressed in the GEO contract in addition to wages. While GEO is also seeking a substantial raise to the paltry $18,065 salary, without simultaneously bringing fees under control, wage raises can be clawed back by the administration at any time.

Since the strike began, the union and the administration have twice returned to the bargaining table, on Thursday, March 21 and Friday, March 22, with dozens of rank-and-file GEO members in attendance. At both meetings, the administration stated its continued unwillingness to bargain over fee freezes or waivers, thus preventing any progress in negotiations.

At the same time, the administration has turned to illegal intimidation tactics in an attempt to break the strike. Administrators have sent directives to graduate workers telling them they must report whether or not they are participating in the strike, even though labor law strictly prohibits employers from questioning employees about their legally protected union activities. GEO has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Meanwhile, the UIC faculty union plans to hold a strike authorization vote the week of April 1 over its own stalled contract negotiations.

Increasingly concerned that the administration's continued intransigence is recklessly damaging students' learning conditions and the university's reputation, the GEO issued on Sunday the following open letter to Governor J.B. Pritzker:

March 24, 2019

The Honorable J.B. Pritzker
James R. Thompson Center
100 W. Randolph, 16-100
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Governor Pritzker,

We are the co-presidents of the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the union representing over 1,500 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We have been on an indefinite strike for a fair contract since last Tuesday, following over a year of negotiations with the university administration. Shamefully, this is the second year in a row that graduate employees at a University of Illinois campus have been forced to go on strike to safeguard workplace rights.

As a union of dedicated educators and skilled professionals who provide essential labor for the university, we share your goal of revitalizing public higher education in Illinois and making it more financially accessible. To attract and retain undergraduates, state universities like UIC must also be able to attract and retain high quality graduate student workers, who are vital to fulfilling the university's educational and research mission.

We are on strike for basic financial stability in the form of fee relief and good wages. Many of us make as little as $18,000 a year while teaching as many classes as faculty, in addition to our full-time studies. Despite making so little, we are required to pay up to $2,000 in university fees each year. Combined with Chicago's high cost of living, our low wages and high fees lock us into a state of constant financial distress. This negatively impacts our work and our studies, undermining the university's mission and turning away prospective graduate students who would rather enroll at universities with more competitive economic packages in other states.

Undergraduates and faculty report that most classes last week were cancelled as a result of our work stoppage. Midterm exams and assignments are not being graded. Prospective students visiting campus have seen our pickets. The strike is hindering UIC's normal operations and further tarnishing the already damaged reputation of public higher education in Illinois. Undergraduates and faculty have overwhelmingly expressed support for us and, like us, they blame the dispute entirely on the callousness of the university administration.

We have met with the administration twice since the strike began, but their position remains unchanged. Without explanation, they refuse to bargain over fee freezes or waivers. Because fee increases serve as an indirect pay cut to union-represented employees, they must be addressed in our contract. As spring break begins this week, students are wondering whether Teaching and Graduate Assistants will still be on strike when they return. Meanwhile, due to their own stalled contract negotiations, the faculty union at UIC is planning to hold a strike authorization vote after the break. Soon, both faculty and graduate workers could be on strike together.

We are growing increasingly concerned that the recalcitrance and recklessness of the university administration will do serious long-term damage to our students' learning conditions and to the university's reputation. As a champion for workers' rights and higher education, and as the chief executive of the state, we implore you to take action to ensure that UIC becomes a more attractive institution to work and pursue an education.

Sincerely,
Anne Kirkner and Jeff Schuhrke
GEO Co-Presidents

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See also:

* Sun-Times: UIC Teaching Assistants Go On Strike.

* Tribune: Teaching Assistants Go On Strike At UIC: 'We Have To Fight For The School To Care About Us.'

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on March 25, 2019


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