Grad Student Workers Unite!

I. UIUC GEO On Strike

Earlier this week, the grad student workers at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and their union the Graduate Employees’ Organization went out on strike. After months of stagnating negotiations where the administration refused to budge on crucial issues, the grad unionists at UIUC took to the streets to move negotiations further along. The GEO at UIUC is a union representing nearly 2,700 grad student workers.

The critical issue in the GEO strike was the protection of of tuition waivers for teaching, research, and graduate assistants. This critical benefit in the GEO contract, akin to the TAA’s tuition remission, came under fire as the University of Illinois Board of Trustees looked to cut costs for the university on the backs of grad workers. Because of the union, the core benefit of grad student workers was protected in the successful strike.

When negotiations on the contract began in April, the GEO submitted a full proposal. The administration only responded in August with a proposal that threatened tuition waivers. After months of pursuing matters at the bargaining table, the union began the process of voting among union members to authorize a strike. When they did, 92% of the union voted in favor of doing so. After progress was not made at the bargaining table as the administration stuck to their position without budging, the union authorized the strike and went out on the picket line. After a two-day strike, negotiations on the contract resulted in a tentative agreement protecting tuition waivers for grads at UIUC. Subsequently, the union unanimously voted to suspend their strike and vote on accepting the contract agreement. The GEO claimed the strike and ensuing contract as a major victory for grad student workers at UIUC. We add that this was a major victory for grads everywhere, with student workers standing up for their rights and winning through organization and collective action.

The American Association of University Professors, whose president Cary Nelson is a faculty person at UIUC, strongly supported the GEO strike. The national president of the AFT, Randi Weingarten stood up in support of the striking grads as well. In addition, many other groups, including other unions in the area and the graduate/undergraduate student alliance, and individuals, including many faculty at UIUC, joined in supporting the strike.

In solidarity with the grads at UIUC, with the GEO, and with the struggles of grad student workers everywhere, the TAA sent down a contingent to support the strike. TAA Staffer Claiborne Hill (and her very cute kids) and member-activists Tim Frandy and Alex Hanna joined with dozens of other grad union activists from around the Midwest (including our brothers and sisters at the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association) to assist in organizing, march on the picket lines, and generally stand in solidarity. This blog post has an interesting take and some footage of the picket lines, including Professor Nelson marching with the GEO strikers.

Check out some footage of picket lines shot by Claiborne here and here.

II. Part of a Broader Movement

As we have noted previously, the grad student workers at UW-Madison and the TAA are part of a broader labor movement. We are part of a burgeoning academic labor movement that includes grads, faculty, staff, and post-docs, literally from one coast to the other, from the Upper Midwest to Southern States, and even into Canada. We are part of a four decade-long graduate student worker labor movement as well. In fact, the TAA was the nation’s first grad union, officially beginning in 1969 as grads at UW-Madison organized to take on democratizing the university.

The struggles of one grad union, or really, of any workers, anywhere is a struggle for us too. What happens to grads at UW-Madison does not happen in isolation. As a union, we believe we are stronger together, be it at our university or across the university community of the entire nation. The successful strike at UIUC demonstrates one way that collective action and organization improves the lives of graduate student workers and all academic workers.

III. Public Employees and Public Institutions Under Assault

In recent years, the forty year assault on public institutions and public employees has grown more virulent. Bad policy and worse politics have created a situation where the role of public institutions has been delegitimized while the people who make them work are at times denigrated. The mania to cut taxes and reduce government outlays for critical things like higher education have left university budgets starving, rendering them more reliant upon private money and at the same time taking out perceived fiscal struggles on academic workers.

Public employee unions and in particular academic worker unions have stepped up to provide a challenge to this broken model. The systemic challenges we face require a systemic-level solution, something that unions as collective vehicles provide.

So where tuition remission, healthcare benefits, or living wage stipends come under attack because of the assault on universities and other public institutions, our union is our way to fight back. This is what the GEO did in their strike, and this is what the TAA does every day to protect and advance the interests of grad student workers at UW-Madison.

For a story on other academic worker and student struggles, check out this piece from Democracy Now. Former grad union leader and Cal State faculty-person Marc Bosquet maintains a great blog called “How the University Works” on the changing nature of the academy and the struggles waged to combat it, including the work of academic unions. You can check that out here.

IV. Unions & Striking

One tool that unions possess to assert the rights and protect the interests of workers is the strike. This is almost always a last-ditch deployment when all else has failed, and usually the result of management refusing to budge in collective bargaining. Strikes are one form of collective action.

In Wisconsin, public employees, including grad student workers, do not have a legal right to strike (which is different than in Illinois). Ultimately, while this removes one tool from our disposal, we still have the ability to take collective action to protect our interests and to assert our rights. A union is a vehicle for collective action, no matter what the particular form might be.