Univ. Of Illinois Graduate Student Workers Strike, Occupy President’s Office

| Resist!

Above photo: From UI GEO.

NOTE: An update on day 10 of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Graduate Employees Union ( GEO ) strike. The longest strike in the history of the University of Illinois.

Yesterday evening, March 6, after a march on the residence of the President of the University of Illinois, a group of about 100 GEO Union members occupied the Henry administration building on the U of I campus.

Police were immediately called and they locked down the building to prevent any additional Union members or community supporters from joining the occupation. No arrests have yet been made.

A rally in support of the GEO and the occupation is scheduled to begin at 12 Noon U.S. central time today March 7.

If you have not already donated to the GEO Union strike fund, please do so at www.uigeo.org OR, You can mail a check to ; GEO , 809 S. 5th St. McKinley foundation, Champaign, IL 61820. Please make your check payable to “Graduate Employees Organization”.  – David Johnson

In a sign of escalating tensions surrounding the strike at the University of Illinois, members of the graduate student workers union in Urbana-Champaign have camped outside the university president’s office and are refusing to leave until they receive a contract to their liking.

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization walked off the job on Feb. 26 following nearly a year of unsuccessful contract talks with the administration. The union, which represents around 2,700 graduate and teaching assistants, began negotiating a new contract in March 2017 and has been working without a contract since August.

The university spokesman Tom Hardy said union members, who entered the building on Tuesday, are occupying the hallway and staircase next to President Timothy Killeen’s office and suite in the Henry Administration Building in Urbana. A video that union members posted to their Twitter account shows members in the hallway, some with tents, with signs affixed to the wall showing messages including “Fund education first” and “Fair wages for grad labor.”

“They are acting peacefully and have arrayed numerous protest signs in the area,” Hardy said. “Staff departed the office and reentered this morning with no incident.”

The strike is having an effect on campus life. University officials say 457 classes have been moved and 576 classes have been canceled over seven school days, though they maintain those numbers represent a small percentage of the number of classes offered daily. Between 1,936 and 2,880 class sessions are held Monday to Friday in Urbana-Champaign.

In bringing the demonstration to Killeen’s office, students say they are hoping to place more pressure on the administration to meet their demands for guaranteed tuition waivers and more generous pay raises — the primary issues of contention between the two sides. The strike, the longest in the union’s 20-year history, is into a second week after a mediation session on Sunday failed to result in any progress. Another mediation is under way on Wednesday, according to union and university leaders.

“Our picket lines have been really strong for the past week and people keep turning up. Our rallies are packed and that’s excellent,” said Ashli Anda, one of the union organizers. “But we also recognize that even a successful, repetitive action might not be enough of an escalation. So we had this plan to apply a little bit more pressure through this occupation.”

Urbana-Champaign Provost Andreas Cangellaris said he believed the university’s team has offered several concessions that met the demands of the graduate student workers.

“We share a common goal here,” Cangellaris said in a statement. “We want to reach an agreement that is fair, equitable and ensures that Illinois continues to be a top choice for the best graduate students in the world. We also need to be sure that our faculty continue to steward the quality and competitiveness of our academic programs.We’re back at the bargaining table today to work together with them to reach common ground and a fair resolution.”

Union leaders are seeking guaranteed tuition waivers for themselves and future students, arguing that the benefit is the primary reason many can afford to pursue graduate-level studies at U. of I. The administration wants to regain the ability to modify waivers for programming and financial reasons but says any changes would not affect the terms for currently enrolled students.

The majority of members in the bargaining unit have graduate and teaching assistant programs requiring them to work 20 hours a week for up to nine months a year as a condition of their tuition waivers, according to a university website. Only those who work between 10 and 27 hours a week for their assistantships are part of the bargaining unit, according to the union leaders.

The union also is seeking 7.47 percent raises to the minimum pay for assistantships in the current academic year. It also is requesting 3.5 percent base pay increases and 3.5 percent annual raises during a three-year contract. The administration proposed a 4 percent boost in base pay for this year then 1.5 percent increases in the remaining years of a five-year contract, according to a university website. Reappointed graduate employees would receive a 3 percent raise in the first year.

Union members also are seeking increases to health care coverage and a monthly child care subsidy for parents, among other benefits.

Members of U. of I.’s undergraduate senate expressed support for the graduate workers. In an open letter over the weekend, 33 senators urged Cangellaris, the provost, to agree to the union’s demands on tuition waiver guarantees and said students across campus have felt the effects of the strike.

“Attacking that guarantee (or hedging it) lowers morale, exponentially increases students’ financial uncertainty and embarrasses the university nationally,” the letter stated. “Undergraduates benefit vastly from access to the best possible teaching assistants, and tuition waiver guarantees draw in such instructors. As the past few days demonstrate, without quality instructors the university cannot function.”

Killeen, who was away from the office on business Tuesday, said in a statement the university remains “firmly committed” to graduate and undergraduate students.

“I have been in close contact with Chancellor Jones and Provost Cangellaris throughout negotiations and during the strike,” Killeen said. “I trust that the scheduled talks with the federal mediator will bear fruit soon with a fair and reasonable agreement.”

drhodes@chicagotribune.com, @rhodes_dawn