With less than two weeks before final exams, unionized graduate student workers at the biggest university in the nation’s third-largest city are on an indefinite strike.
The work stoppage at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) began on Monday after a year of stalled contract negotiations between the university administration and the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). It comes at the same time that graduate workers at Indiana University are on strike for union recognition.
This is the second time in three years that the GEO has gone on strike. In March 2019, grad workers brought normal operations at UIC to a halt for nearly three weeks before winning their best contract since first unionizing in 2004. The current strike is in many ways a sequel to that struggle, as grad workers continue demanding higher wages and lower fees in the face of an ever-rising cost of living.
“UIC remains bafflingly obstinate when it comes to not providing the basics of a labor contract: a living wage, protections against harassment, and no lockout language,” says Erin O’Callaghan, a GEO bargaining committee member and PhD candidate in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice. “GEO continues to make movement at the table, while the university passes us crumbs and tells us we should be grateful.”
As teaching assistants, UIC graduate employees lead discussion and lab sections, grade exams and assignments, tutor and mentor undergraduate students, and often serve as the instructors of record for classes of up to one hundred students. This teaching work is especially important since, as Chicago’s only public research university, UIC primarily serves first-generation, working-class students of color.
GEO members have continued performing this labor throughout the pandemic — adapting to online teaching, encouraging students during a public health and economic crisis, and then readjusting to in-person teaching. At the same time, the pandemic has forced many of them to delay completing their degrees due to travel restrictions and other barriers to conducting research, alongside navigating the crisis like everyone else.
Despite grad workers’ crucial role in fulfilling UIC’s mission, their baseline salary is only $20,615. This is far lower than what their peers make at other Chicago universities. At the University of Chicago, grad workers are paid a minimum of $32,000. At Loyola University Chicago, the administration gave grad workers a $10,000 raise last year — instantly bumping their salary from $18,000 to $28,000 — in an apparent attempt to stave off a years-long unionization campaign.
While receiving low pay, UIC grad workers are also required to pay a variety of academic and health care fees that can add up to around $2,000 per year — money that comes out of their meager paychecks. In past contracts, the union has secured multiple fee waivers and reductions, but over the years, the university has created new fees or increased existing ones, especially to finance the construction of new buildings on campus.
As UIC grad workers have struggled through the pandemic, the university is in excellent financial health. Last fall, the administration reported a record-high endowment return, and also recently boasted of receiving a state budget increase for the third year in a row. Since the 2019 strike, the university president’s salary has risen from $600,000 to $850,000, while the UIC chancellor’s pay has gone from $400,000 to $600,000.
But at the bargaining table, administrators have been offering grad workers miniscule raises that wouldn’t begin to keep up with the current inflation rate while refusing to discuss any fee reductions or freezes at all:
Despite having members bare their financial trauma at the table, harrowingly describing that they often have to choose between eating and paying their bills, UIC’s response was to maintain their meager financial package that includes no fee relief and has us paying more for the same healthcare coverage
Another major concern in bargaining has been securing stronger protections against harassment, discrimination, and workplace bullying. As at other universities, allegations of sexual misconduct or racial discrimination are investigated by the institution itself in what many believe is an inherently unfair process. The union is particularly seeking immediate accommodations for members who experience harassment or abuse, like being allowed to move to a different supervisor or workspace while investigations are pending.
“GEO has to be involved in making sure our members receive supportive measures in the workplace when they are harassed or discriminated against,” explains O’Callaghan. She adds that grad workers have “lost all faith that UIC will properly support survivors, and so GEO members must be allowed to protect ourselves.”
After a year of negotiations, earlier this month, GEO members voted to strike with 97 percent approval. The strike began on Monday, with grad workers hitting the picket lines and hundreds of classes believed to be canceled. The union and administration have returned to the bargaining table three times since the work stoppage began, but so far, the university remains obstinate.
Since the strike began, GEO has received an outpouring of support from the campus community. Nearly nine thousand students, faculty, staff, and community members have sent a letter to administrators urging them to settle a fair contract, and the union’s strike fund has quickly raised almost $25,000.
Despite messaging from the administration appearing to try to get undergraduates to resent their teaching assistants for seeking lower fees, undergrads have overwhelmingly expressed sympathy for the grad workers. Tenured/tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty with UIC United Faculty have been joining GEO members on the picket lines and are refusing to scab by doing grad workers’ labor. Several members of the Chicago City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus, along with representatives of other campus unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, have also joined the picketers.
The University of Illinois is notorious for repeatedly pushing its workers to go on strike to get new contracts. Since 2014, faculty at the Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, and Springfield campuses have all staged work stoppages. Grad workers at the Urbana-Champaign campus were on strike for two weeks in early 2018. In fall 2020, some five thousand UIC nurses, building services staff, and other workers with SEIU Local 73 and the Illinois Nurses Association withheld their labor for over a week to win new contracts. Just this Wednesday, faculty at the university’s Springfield campus voted to authorize a strike amid stalled contract negotiations of their own.
The upside to these constant battles is that more and more university workers have come to recognize their collective strength and the value of their labor.
“When we went on strike in 2019, we learned that we have the power — union power,” GEO organizing chair and mathematics PhD candidate Matt DeVilbiss said at a strike rally on Wednesday. “We’re not asking, we are demanding.”