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Huffington Post–Robert Naiman

November 18, 2009

Teachable Moment: Grad Employee Victory Shows Need for

Labor Law Reform

On Tuesday, University of Illinois administrators agreed to the demand that had sent members of the Graduate Employees Organization out on strike: protection for the tuition waivers of graduate employees will now be part of the GEO contract. As a result, the strike was suspended and ratification by GEO members of a new contract is now virtually certain.

As in any strike or labor struggle, the main force that allowed GEO members to win was their determination and solidarity.

But there’s a political barrier that obstructs many private sector workers in the United States from being able to taste the victory that GEO members tasted yesterday: the need for labor law reform. If the Employee Free Choice Act were law, currently unorganized private sector workers from Miami to Fairbanks would have the same ability as GEO members to advocate collectively and effectively for their interests, largely free of the fear of retaliation.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. Last year, less than an hour away from where GEO members celebrated their victory yesterday, employees at the Bloomington Pantagraph newspaper were fired for trying to organize a union. On paper, that was a flagrant violation of federal labor law. In practice, the weak penalties and slow enforcement of existing labor laws have encouraged anti-union employers to see breaking the law as a standard business practice.

Compared to the Pantagraph workers, the Graduate Employees had some advantages. Their employer is a creature of the State of Illinois, supported by tax dollars. The University’s Board of Trustees were appointed by Governor Pat Quinn, who broadly speaking has historically had good relations with Illinois labor unions, including the GEO’s parent union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That doesn’t mean that the GEO members had an easy fight – by no means. It does mean that they faced an adversary who was politically constrained once the issues were carried into the public square, as they were carried by the strike.

If the Employee Free Choice Act were law, private sector workers would face employers who were similarly constrained. And that would be a very good thing for America. It would help give every American worker a voice on the job. It would help give every American worker economic security. It would help arrest and reverse the recent slide towards extreme economic inequality that hurts not only those at the bottom of the labor market, but our economy as a whole, because impoverished workers can’t spent money to support local businesses or pay taxes to support public services.

We’re not talking about socialism here. In the first year of the new GEO contract, the mimium salary for half-time assistants will rise 3% – to $13,840, still less than 90% of the University’s own estimate of the minimum cost of living for graduate employees. Meanwhile, top administrators are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, placing their household incomes in the top 10% of the U.S. population. Still, if your salary is $13,430, an extra $500 in your pocket is pretty sweet.

If the Employee Free Choice Act were law, we’d still have economic inequality, and the lowest-paid workers would likely still be working their butts off for too little compensation. But they would have an avenue for redress of grievances that they don’t have today. And that’s worth fighting for.

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