UIUC’s slew of incoming graduate students has probably heard the acronym “GEO” (Graduate Employees’ Organization) many times in the last couple weeks. Adam Edwards, the Communications Officer for GEO, gives a primer on the organization in the first installment of a new monthly column on unions and labor-related issues in C-U.
Why do graduate students need a union?
This is probably the most common question that incoming students, community members, and my in-laws ask when I describe the Graduate Employees’ Organization.
In 2002, the G.E.O. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign won legal recognition with the university administration. Since then wages have been unfrozen, the burden of health care costs has been shifted off the backs of already-low-wage graduate employees, and protections against discrimination and harassment have expanded. The G.E.O. is composed entirely of graduate students who volunteer their time and energy to sustain the protections afforded to us by our contract. With a small team of dedicated staff, the G.E.O. has seen significant growth over the last decade, culminating in a new five-year contract bargained with the university administration just last year.
The G.E.O. is a labor union, despite the fact that graduate students typically don’t consider themselves to be laborers in a traditional sense. However, the work (alternatively, the *labor*) we provide the University is vital. Teaching Assistants (TAs) make up a significant portion of the higher education market. Graduate Assistants and Research Assistants also perform much of the work that gets done on the university campus on a daily basis. Without a union, the protections these university employees have would not exist.
The G.E.O. has been instrumental in assuring that the graduate employees at the U of I are protected by a fair employment contract. Below are just a few of the accomplishments of the G.E.O. over the last year:
- Our new contract guarantees that no department will eliminate or reduce tuition waiver coverage. This landmark victory came after more than two decades of G.E.O. organizing at the University, where tuition waivers have been consistently ranked by our members as a top bargaining priority.
- Tuition waiver protections at the University would not be possible without the 2009 strike, in which more than 1,000 grads walked off the job (one of the 5 largest strikes in the U.S. that year) after the University refused to guarantee tuition waivers, and the mass mobilization and department organizing in 2012, when we were able to prevent a second strike and at the same time secure tuition waivers until 2017.
- The G.E.O. recently reached a landmark settlement with the University after 2 years of legal struggle in which graduate employees in 5 departments in the College of Fine & Applied Arts were reimbursed for tuition they had been unfairly charged from 2010 through 2012. The total settlement was close to a half-million dollars, and all of the money was reimbursed to affected grads at the beginning of 2013.
- There are numerous protections that the G.E.O. has enabled graduate students to bargain for and win. These include protection against furloughs, the ability to have their grievances arbitrated, and a guaranteed non-discrimination clause in our contract. The GEO has made it a central priority to ensure that graduate students at this university are protected against all forms of discrimination, overwork, and unfair labor practices.
- Mothers who are breast-feeding have strengthened protections in the most recent contract. Employing departments are required to provide a private room close to the workplace for employees who are nursing mothers. While this has been state law for several years, its inclusion in the contract allows nursing mothers to be protected by the union rather than having to pay an attorney, which typically amounts to several thousand dollars.
- Health care costs are rising, and the G.E.O. has helped graduate students afford these costs in numerous ways. Prior to the G.E.O. graduate students at the University of Illinois received neither dental nor vision insurance, were required to pay the McKinley Health Center Fee, and had to pay a significant portion of their regular health insurance on their own. Since the G.E.O. has been bargaining with the University administration we have won both dental and vision insurance, the McKinley Health Center fee is entirely waived, and 80% of our health insurance costs are covered by the University.
Many graduate students, unlike the majority of students at the University of Illinois, are also employed by the University as educators, researchers and administrative professionals. The G.E.O. has an important role to advocate for the rights of those employees and to ensure that they are treated with respect. It may be cliche to say that the working conditions of educator are the learning conditions of the student, but as both educators and students it is more important than ever that graduate students unionize.