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Huffington Post GEO Strike Article

November 16, 2009

The Lifeblood of Undergraduate Education Is on Strike

The Fighting Illini don’t have much fight on the gridiron this year. But the disgraced administrators who perpetrated the “Clout List” scandal had enough fight to win golden parachutes even after they lose their top administrative positions. And now the University administration has allowed a strike of its teaching assistants — the lifeblood of undergraduate education — to begin today, November 16th, at 8am. What are this University’s priorities? Following the pay-to-play legacy of disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich? Or cleansing itself and resuming its mission as a bastion of higher education offered to the sons and daughters of hard-working taxpaying Illinois residents. The U of I is at a crossroads, and to my mind, it has only one option left.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the labor union that represents all TAs and Graduate Assistants (GAs) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have called a strike that will disrupt undergraduate instruction and other critical functions on the University campus. Many of us are teachers, and it goes without saying that we do not wish for our jobs and the education of our students to be disrupted with a work strike so close to the end of the semester. We have been forced into this position because the administration has refused to seriously negotiate on the issue that’s most important to GEO members: a guarantee in our contracts that protects our tuition waivers, not just as a matter of practice, but as a contractual obligation. This demand is clearly not about grabbing for cash in the middle of a recession: it’s about ensuring that the University does not try to reduce the compensation of graduate students in order to address its budgetary problems. If the University cannot meet this demand, it is willingly ensuring that the future of graduate education at this state’s largest and most prestigious public university is less accessible and a less attractive option for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. By refusing to seriously negotiate on this issue, the administration demonstrates that it is not committed to recruiting and retaining top graduate students to come study at this university and provide education to its undergraduates. In essence, we’re demanding that the university hold itself accountable to its own purported standards of excellence in public education.

The GEO came to the table with a full contract proposal on the first day of negotiations, while the administration failed to present a counterproposal for more than three months. Even then, the counterproposal offered by the administration was actually regressive in a number of respects from the GEO’s previous contract. Although the GEO has made many concessions over the course of 18 bargaining sessions, the first movement we saw from the administration came only after a unanimous membership vote to file an Intent to Strike last month. Tuition waiver guarantees have been of a pillar of our platform since day one; this is no “11th hour” demand. The GEO believes that the administration’s unwillingness to concede on the issue that matters most to its graduate employees demonstrates that the university is seriously considering graduate tuition as a promising source of revenue during difficult economic times. A work strike is clearly a last resort in our effort to secure a fair contract.

This university is still reeling from an admissions scandal that forced most of the Board of Trustees, the chancellor, and the university president to resign. We have a (mostly) new Board of Trustees and are looking for new administrative leadership. The members of the GEO and so many of our supporters in this struggle stand firm in our belief that now is the time for the university to reassess its priorities.

The former chancellor diverted $450,000 of discretionary funds to provide jobs and scholarships for politically well-connected but dubiously deserving applicants. At the same time that the administration was failing to bargain a fair contract for its graduate employees, $400,000 went to the attorneys who represented the university before the governor’s investigative committee, and another went to $550,000 to the generous new faculty appointments of the former president and chancellor under the terms of their respective resignations. While these misguided former leaders of the university quickly negotiated cushy faculty appointments, the GEO is still being told that there is no money at all to meet our fair and reasonable demands. Last year’s remarkable failure, the University of Illinois Global Campus, cost the university more than it would cost to meet all of the GEO’s contract demands. We find it hard to trust an interim administration that has not yet given us cause to trust it, nor an outgoing administration which has proven itself untrustworthy and unethical. From the GEO’s perspective, it appears that the University’s budget crisis is, at least in part, a crisis of priorities.

No one can deny that the university and the State of Illinois are facing economic woes the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. So the administration is holding fast to the position that they have no money and cannot make any concessions to the TAs and GAs who largely determine the quality of undergraduate education at the University of Illinois. If they have “no intention” of changing the current policy on tuition waivers, why do they refuse to guarantee them in our contract? TAs on this campus teach nearly a quarter of all undergraduate classes, and many of us are the sole instructors of record for our courses. I, for one, am currently doing the work of a faculty member, teaching an undergraduate course of 135 students. I am assistant to no one, as I deliver all lectures, plan and deliver weekly discussion sections, write exams and grade all work with the collaboration of another excellent grad student. Yet we’re both considered “assistants.” I’m not complaining; it’s been a phenomenal experience. But I wish to provide some perspective on what it means for many of us to be “teaching assistants” at this university.

I regret that I have been forced into the position of having to cancel my class and picket the buildings into which my students go to get an education. I resent the fact that the University of Illinois administration is so determined to convince the people of Illinois that our demands are unreasonable and untenable. By refusing to bargain in good faith on the issue that matters most to the GEO, the administration demonstrates that in hard economic times, it is prepared to compromise its core missions of providing accessible public education and quality instruction for the sons and daughters of Illinois by making sure the people who provide that education feel like respected workers.

This is one of those defining moments for a major institution like the U of I. Tuition waiver security is not the only thing still on the bargaining table, but it is the issue that has united our membership and rallied support from across the state and the country. As we walk out on this cold, rainy morning, 13 million Illinois residents are now wondering if the university can stop talking about how much they value us, and step up to show some real respect to the TAs who play such a key role in the education of our sons and daughters.

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