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Fair wages, not Ferris wheels: Why the U of I isn’t with the GEO

On Friday, October 13th, there was a QuadFest celebration happening on campus. The QuadFest celebration and fundraising launch were intended to raise money in the University of Illinois’ largest philanthropic campaign ever and, according to the university administration, to celebrate the achievements of those who make the university happen.

Yet, the university administration doesn’t support the graduate workers who actually do a large portion of the work the University purports to celebrate.

The QuadFest Ferris wheel

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) has been in contract negotiations with the administration since March 2017. During this time, the administration has refused to bargain fairly with the GEO. They have stalled at the bargaining table. They have threatened to reduce or eliminate tuition waivers for graduate employees. They want to have the ability to cut our pay at will, to contribute less to our health care as premiums skyrocket, and to ignore the financial and emotional needs of parents who work and study here. In doing so, they have mocked and disrespected the very people who make the university work.

As a graduate employee at U of I, I teach undergraduate courses in exchange for a tuition waiver and a small stipend while I complete my PhD. As a member of the GEO, I get to have a say in how my employee rights are protected. I get to make sure that the rights of my fellow graduate workers — and those who come after us — are protected in the first place. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s worth it to make sure that my fellow graduate workers and I are treated fairly by our employer as we do our research, teach our courses, go to conferences, publish scholarly papers, and carry out the daily work of higher education.

The administration likes that we do all of these things, but it doesn’t want to respect or take care of us. By refusing to bargain fairly with the GEO, the administration has made it abundantly clear that in its eyes, we’re not people; we’re profit. The university is happy to celebrate our work, our achievements, but the administration refuses to support the people who do the work, the very people whose achievements it claims to celebrate.

GEO members protest the With Illinois kickoff celebration on 10/13.

The administration likes to argue that it doesn’t have the money to comply with our proposals, even if it wanted to. “They’re too expensive,” the administration says. This is absurd. Our demands are entirely reasonable. We are not asking for six-figure bonuses. We are not asking for multimillion-dollar vanity projects. We are asking for the bare minimum of what will enable graduate employees to live and work here. We are asking for a continuation of full tuition waivers, a raise in salary to keep pace with the rising cost of living in Champaign-Urbana, access to adequate and affordable health care, and financial support and access to resources for graduate employees who are raising a family.

We estimate that our proposals would cost the University less than $10 million in total. Sure, that sounds like a lot of money in a state recovering from a budget crisis—until you look at the figures. Only about 10 percent of the university’s budget actually comes from the state. The rest comes from tuition and philanthropic donations like those being solicited in the With Illinois campaign. Tuition at UIUC has been rising, and enrollment was up 15 percent last year at a time when most public institutions are seeing enrollment wane. (Do graduate workers get paid more as our class sizes—and our workloads—increase? No.)

In addition to tuition, the University raked in $278.4 million in donations during the 2017 fiscal year, as reported in the News-Gazette. The $11-billion endowment might not look big compared to, say, Harvard’s, but the University has more money than ever before, and we have some serious questions about how that money is being put to use. The plan to renovate the Illini Union will cost $248 millionfor a vanity project — and President Tim Killeen got a $100,000 performance bonus last year for no apparent reason.

Despite this, the administration claims it can’t afford to provide for the needs of its graduate workers. That’s an outright lie. The university has the money; the administration just doesn’t want to spend it on education.

Meanwhile, graduate employees are struggling to pay their bills and weighing the cost of groceries against summer health insurance. Shouldn’t the university administration be taking care of those who work here instead of patting itself on the back? The university isn’t just a bunch of fancy buildings and rich alumni and vague statements about the importance of higher education; it’s the people who are here every day teaching the classes and doing the research in pursuit of the goals of higher education. Shouldn’t the administration believe that the people behind the work matter?

It’s clear that the administration is happy to give lip service to “celebrate” its own greatness while exploiting the very people who make the university work. Ferris wheels are fun — nobody is contesting that — but what we really want is a fair wage, tuition waivers, support for those raising families, and affordable, accessible, high-quality health care. Those things aren’t fun. Those things are absolutely necessary to the survival of graduate workers.

And does the University think it is great? Does the University think it even functions on a daily basis without graduate workers?

It isn’t. It doesn’t. It won’t.

If you are interested in helping the GEO in their pursuit of fair wages, please add your name to our petition to demand that the administration #WorkWithUs for a fair contract. Commentary is welcome.

You can also visit our website to learn more about the University’s financial situation.

Top photo GEO members and allies march on Swanlund Administration Building to demand a fair contract, 10/4/2017. Photo courtesy of GEO.

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