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November 14, 2009


GEO, UI resume negotiations Saturday

By Paul Wood
Saturday November 14, 2009

URBANA – The University of Illinois and its graduate student union will again negotiate at 3 p.m. Saturday, with a strike possible if the sides can’t agree.

Among several things the UI and the union can’t agree on is how much the assistants are paid in the first place.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization contends that some teaching and research assistants aren’t paid a living wage figure set by the university itself.

The GEO has already voted to authorize a strike, possibly beginning this week. The union said the measure was approved by 92 percent of those voting, but would not say how many of its members voted.

On Thursday, more than 250 members of the 2,700-strong local bargaining unit held protests on campuses in Urbana, Springfield and Chicago.

The group has moral support from some other groups, including the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance and the Campus Faculty Association.

TAs and GAs have been working without a contract since Aug. 15.

GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says the strike would involve the entire Urbana campus. Graduate students perform 23 percent of undergraduate teaching; other assistants are primarily researchers.

“The strike committee would ask that all members of the bargaining unit withhold all teaching-related labor, so that would apply to every department,” Campbell said.

Campbell said signs would probably be made at the University YMCA, where the GEO has an office.

“We’re not releasing the picket locations at this time,” he said.

The UI’s spokeswoman, Associate Chancellor Robin Kaler, said the campus has a plan prepared for the event of the strike.

Not under consideration, she said, are locking TAs out, or punitive actions such as removing tuition waivers.

GEO member Leighton Christiansen said there is a feeling of support for the strike.

“Many grads and undergrads are contacting us to volunteer for picket line duty,” he said in an e-mail.

“Of course, there may be consequences. I may lose pay; I may suffer academically – in the short term. If we don’t stop the attack on our union, and if we continue to fall farther and farther behind the minimum living wage (and I am one of those minimum grad wage workers) we will suffer greater consequences in the long run. If we don’t fight back now, we will suffer now and later. GEO members are fighting for the long term.”

The UI says it cannot afford to increase wages while it faces budget shortfalls.

“Financial planning is now focused on meeting and coping with financial stresses exceeding any the university has encountered for many, many years. Although we have seen welcome increases in research funding, and there have been successes in the advancement campaign, it must be understood that funds from those sources cannot be used for TA salaries. For these reasons, the GEO’s request for a nearly 20 percent raise in the minimum stipend is untenable,” interim Provost Robert Easter wrote in an e-mail earlier this week.

The UI’s own living wage estimate is $16,086.

It includes estimates for living in a residence hall (single room with a private bath) at $6,106 with 20 meals a week at $5,420 for a total of $11,526, Kaler said.

Books, school supplies, Internet service, personal clothing, Sunday evening meals and transportation make up the remainder, she said.

Campbell argues that many graduate assistants don’t get 50 percent appointments and don’t make living wage.

The GEO’s database shows that many graduate employees in these departments have either 25 percent, 33 percent, 66 percent or other appointment levels.

The academic-year numbers are based on the monthly salaries multiplied by nine, which is how the Illinois Federation of Teachers calculates salaries.

Some departments have noticeably less money than others.

In the School of Music, the GEO says, only 10 people have 50 percent appointments at $13,430. Campbell said 87 out of the 123 bargaining unit members in music have 25 percent appointments and make $6,714 per academic year.

The wage differential could mean that the liberal arts students end up being especially hard-hit by a strike.

“Generally, grad students in the sciences make much more than in the humanities,” Campbell said. “This means that the functional result of the provost’s argument is twofold: that only persons who have significant economic privilege should have access to a public, land-grant institution, and that this should especially be the case for persons who wish to study in the humanities.”

Sides disagree on tuition waivers

The University of Illinois says that, with benefits and tuition waivers, average compensation for 50 percent assistants teaching 20 hours a week for nine months (60 percent of graduate assistants), ranges from $27,840 to $45,430.

GEO spokesman Peter Campbell said that counting tuition waivers, which are necessary to continue education, as paid compensation is incorrect.

The minimum salary for a 50 percent nine-month appointment is $13,430. The UI’s estimate for the living wage in Urbana is $16,086.

Accounting graduate students have the highest average salary at $29,547.

Assistants in physics earn $16,362; history, $16,002; kinesiology, $13,430; African-American studies, $13,995; business administration, $16,002; theater, $18,495; Institute of Communications Research, $13,430.

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