Smile Politely

A letter from the GEO

To the editors of the Daily Illini — from the Graduate Employee’s Organization:

In an October 15th editorial entitled “GEO request: Good idea, rough timing,” the Daily Illini Editorial Board argued that while a living wage is wholly deserved, the current budget situation makes asking for it illogical. Respectfully, the GEO begs to differ.

While the editorial correctly evaluates the importance of Teaching Assistants (TAs) by noting that “our University would have a tough time functioning without them,” it leaves out the hard facts that back up this claim. In AY 08-09, 23.1% of all course hours on our campus were taught by TAs. Of the crucial 100 level courses that initiate freshmen students into the world of university academics, 40.5% were taught by TAs, many of whom are the sole instructor of record for their courses. In the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS), the largest on our campus, one-third of all course hours were taught by TAs. As for the quality of our work, 83.3% of TAs received average scores of 4 or 5 on their ICES surveys, compared to 85.1% of faculty. Not too bad, considering that faculty members have the benefit of years of experience, as well as more control over syllabi, grading scales, etc. TAs are clearly an integral and positive part of the undergraduate experience, and a principal reason for the University’s stellar academic reputation, as evidenced by it’s current 9th place ranking in US News and World Report’s listing of US public universities. It should be noted, however, that the GEO also represents Graduate Assistants (GAs), who play a significant role in maintaining such campus facilities as libraries, performance arts centers, museums, recreational centers, health services, and specialized academic units. We are indeed students, but we are also workers who contribute crucial labor to our campus community.

The Board’s editorial goes wrong when it attempts to characterize both the nature of our current contract negotiations and the state of the University’s budget. The GEO brought a comprehensive contract proposal to the bargaining table on April 21st of this year, the first day of negotiations with the administration. That proposal included not only a living wage, but also improvements to health and child care, as well as non-monetary issues such as tuition-waiver security. Despite multiple negotiation sessions, the administration’s bargaining team did not respond with a counter proposal until August 11th, nearly four months later and just four days before our previous contract expired. The administration’s proposal would have frozen our wages for three years, meaning that in an inflationary environment graduate employees would actually receive less compensation in terms of real wages. Moreover, the administration proposal would have removed basic labor rights, such as filing a grievance based on racial, gender, religious, ethnic, or other forms of discrimination. The administration also sought to reserve the right to fire or furlough graduate employees at will, with neither reason nor notice, and to compensate employees not with money, but with “in-kind” goods and services. Such a proposal is clearly unacceptable. As a result, graduate employees have been working under the terms of an expired contract for the entirety of this semester. We nonetheless continue to negotiate. Our bargaining team has presented serious counterproposals, including concessions on monetary issues. Each and every one of these proposals has been rejected or ignored by the administration.

Whether due to a calculated omission or just a lack of knowledge, the Daily Illini Board’s editorial focuses exclusively on the issue of a living wage. In so doing, they misreport the current living wage for an academic year in Urbana-Champaign. The number they cite, $15,474, corresponds to AY 08-09. The living wage for the current academic year – as calculated by University administrators themselves and posted on the Graduate College’s website – is actually $16,086. This alone provides valuable testimony for the need to raise wages in response to inflation. What the editorial does not mention is that the administration’s calculation fails to factor in over $1,000 in fees that a graduate student will pay this year. (Worse yet, the editorial makes the completely false claim that graduate employees receive “book fees.” Such a fee category does not exist, and graduate employees spend significant amounts on books each semester.) A graduate employee working the standard 50% appointment and earning the current minimum salary of $13,430 will fall short of a minimum wage by $2,656 dollars before paying another $1,000 in fees. Overall, more than half of all TAs and GAs earn less than a living wage. Like undergraduates, we often make up the difference by taking out loans or working second jobs. Most graduate employees, however, are at a significantly different stage of life. We bear our financial burdens while maintaining grueling research and writing schedules, while trying to pay off our own undergraduate loans, and, in roughly ten percent of the cases, while raising families – with all of the extra financial and time constraints that go along with it. Meanwhile, international students, who comprise over one-third of the graduate student body (37.4% last year), are legally barred from taking additional work and must survive on their assistantships. Asking for enough money to live on while we juggle multiple sets of demanding responsibilities is in no way whatsoever a symptom of greed or a lack of logic. Rather, it is a thoroughly rational demand for the respect due to hard workers.

Regardless, the Board maintains that demanding such respect in the face of current budget difficulties is illogical. The truth is that accepting the administration’s claims of budgetary crisis without further investigation is not only illogical, it is evidence of a failure to carry out the basic journalistic duties of research and fact checking. Less than one fifth of the University’s budget is derived from State revenues (in FY 09 it was 17.2%). The rest comes largely from tuition, grants, donations, investments, and self-sustaining sources of income. Last year on our campus tuition was increased by $401 per student, per semester, resulting in revenue growth of 14.5%. Investment income from the University’s endowment rose 5% last year and, as former President Joe White stated to the incoming Board of Trustees earlier this year, it has performed better than expected in our poor economy. What’s more, as the Daily Illini itself reported on August 19th, in FY 09 “the University brought in enough donations to experience one of the top five fundraising years in its 142-year history – all in spite of the economic downturn and the University admissions scandal.” The total represents “a 2.6% increase from fiscal year 2008.” And while it’s true that Illinois is in a difficult fiscal position, and that State politics have held up the approval of this year’s budget, it’s also true that the budget includes a 1.1% increase in funding for public higher education. Federal stimulus money, meanwhile, will provide an additional $53.3 million dollars this year. The University’s current fiscal issues are clearly not due to a lack of resources. In fact, raising the minimum salary for TAs and GAs to a living wage would cost less than two-tenths of one percent of the campus budget.

Clearly, the financial burdens faced by graduate employees are due less to budget shortfalls than to major shortcomings in the administration’s priorities. UIUC’s FY 09 budget saw an increase of over $103 million, or 7%, from FY 08. Where was this increased funding allocated? Not especially to academic colleges, which saw much smaller increases: in LAS it was 2.8%, in Agriculture 2%, in Education 1.8%, and in Engineering 1.3%. Overall, the percentage of the budget directed to “instruction” rose only 0.8%. However, the Chief Information Officer’s budget rose by 10.9% and the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement saw an increase of 12.1%. “Other Administrative Units” recorded an increase of 10.2%. While such figures indicate a bloated administration, it is even more helpful to point to concrete examples of egregious waste, such as the highly touted but dismally performing Global Campus, which lost a whopping $5.95 million last year before being severely downsized by the Board of Trustees. Worse yet, while graduate employees were working for substandard wages, Chancellor Herman was diverting over $300,000 of “discretionary funds” to insure that a couple dozen politically well-connected but undeserving students were accepted to law school. Once this ethical lapse was discovered, the administration spent at least another $440,000 dollars in legal fees as it responded to the Governor’s investigation. Later it was discovered that Chancellor Herman dipped further into his discretionary funds to provide a $115,000 salary to the Board of Trustees Chairman’s future-son-in-law.

As a reward for their exemplary stewardship, our University’s top administrators receive vastly inordinate salaries and benefits. For example, in 2007-08 former President White earned $555,000 and had a house and a car provided by the state. In that same year, Chancellor Herman earned $427,500 and had a car provided by the state. As if this wasn’t enough, Herman received an 8.6% raise the following year. By way of comparison, a graduate employee earning the minimum salary of $13,002 received only a 3.3% increase. Even former President White’s ignoble downfall (which sadly required him to forfeit a $450,000 retention bonus) has provided a soft landing: he will be earning some $300,000 as a professor in the school of business.

Despite the GEO’s clear signals that administrative costs, including salaries, should be among the first targets of any necessary cutbacks, the Daily Illini Board’s editorial falsely implies that we have suggested cutting faculty salaries. This is absolutely false. In fact, the GEO advocates for higher salaries for the increasing percentage of our faculty, such as adjuncts and visiting professors, that are not in tenure-track positions. Moreover, the GEO does not believe that higher education budgets are a zero-sum game, with one group of students or workers pitted against another. We understand our own efforts to be part of a much larger movement to restore public higher education to the level of fiscal priority that it once enjoyed, and still deserves, in our country. We have and will continue to lobby the Illinois State Legislature for increased funding for our public university system. As the photo which recently ran on the front page of the Daily Illini makes clear, GEO members were in attendance at the governor’s recent rally for the restoration of MAP funding. We are also currently working to support non-unionized, undergraduate TAs in the Chemistry department who have recently had their Spring tuition waivers repealed after the deadline to apply for federal financial aid – in some cases the only other available source of funding – had passed.

Regarding tuition waivers, the Board’s editorial did not even mention that a major plank of the GEO’s bargaining platform is simply a guarantee that administrators will not withdraw the tuition waivers that have traditionally been a condition of graduate employment. Providing such a guarantee in the GEO contract would not increase University expenses in the least, but it would protect graduate employees from the very real possibility of losing the chance to finish their degrees. Just last year the GEO spearheaded a major drive to prevent the approval of a set of proposals, put forth by the Provost’s office, that would have stripped tuition waivers from many graduate employee positions. Without those waivers, graduate education would be a certain impossibility for many less privileged members of our society. Considering that just 6.6% of all graduate assistants are from “underrepresented” racial and ethnic categories, we can clearly not afford to take that step. The GEO works hard to help ensure access to higher education for all. By reducing the GEO’s position to a selfish and illogical grab for cash, the Editorial Board is insulting not only those of us who have worked strenuously and voluntarily for a cause in which we firmly believe, but also the integrity of the very newspaper that they purportedly serve.

That integrity is severely undermined when the Board cites only the opinions of “several TAs” in order to justify the claim that the GEO “represents a small percentage of the entirety of graduate students and TAs.” The truth is that the GEO officially and legally represents over 2,700 graduate students who labor as TAs and GAs on our campus. One must also consider that, though we do not officially represent graduate students who work as Research Assistants (RAs) and Pre-Professional Graduate Assistants (PGAs), these students have received the same improvements in salary and benefits as the workers that we do represent. Those benefits are significant. Prior to 2003, when the GEO won a decade-long moral and legal battle for official recognition as a union, graduate employee wages had been frozen, dental and vision care was not included in the health insurance package, and the University made no contribution to graduate employees’ health care premiums. Since the GEO began representing graduate employees in 2003, wages have increased yearly, grads enjoy dental and vision coverage, and the university contributes 50% of health care premium costs. These gains are just part of the basis for our widespread backing throughout campus. Especially in those departments where graduate degrees require multiple years of study and where salaries fall below a living wage, the GEO enjoys the active support of a majority of graduate students.

We urge all members of the campus community to ignore the uninformed and hastily drawn conclusions of the Daily Illini Editorial Board. Pay heed, instead, to the voice of your democratically elected Student Senate, which just last Spring passed an official resolution in support of the GEO’s contract platform.


The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO)

IFT/AFT Local 6300

(Ed. note: This letter was originally published in the Daily Illini — and it was asked to be re-printed here at Smile Politely.)

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