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Inside the UIC Grad Student TA Strike: Key Questions Answered

By Abi Carlson and Alex Fashandi

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2019 

On March 19, more than 1,500 University of Illinois at Chicago graduate and teaching assistants walked out of their classes in retaliation to the university's board of directors failing to meet their demands for increased salaries, healthcare coverage and decrease in administration fees.

The results of the strike, which was settled April 5,  put a halt to hundreds of UIC classes for three weeks as many professors were unable to teach without the help of their TAs. This left students uncertain about what the strike meant for their future in the class.

After 31 bargaining sessions since March 2018, including nine while the GEO was on strike, the UIC administration and the GEO reached an agreement: an $815 retroactive raise that graduate employees will see as early as their May paychecks, an overall increase of $2,550 over the next three years, a 50% reduction of the international student fee and a reduction in healthcare fees from $295 per month to $240 per month for this year.


 Red book iconRead: Timeline of the UIC graduate student TA strike

Following the end of the GEO strike, UIC administration faced the possibility of another walkout, this time from its professors. After a year of unsuccessful contract negotiations, UIC faculty was set to take over their TAs picket line spot on April 23. The fear of another strike prompted the administration to act quickly and grant its faculty a salary increase, as well as greater job protections for non-tenure track faculty.

“I am particularly excited about new policy protections for our Non-Tenure System faculty, who are integral to the teaching, research and service at UIC. This contract represents significant wins in an ongoing fight for the resources needed to fulfill UIC’s mission,” said Janet Smith, UICUF president.

What do unions like the GEO do for union workers?

Labor organizations, colloquially known as unions, are responsible for representing the appropriate bargaining unit. When we say bargaining unit, we mean the group of union workers who share the same common investment (wage, hours, benefits, etc.)

Professor of Labor Law Martin H. Malin of the Chicago-Kent School of Law said “the reason these employees need union representation is that individual employees do not have much bargaining power, but a collective of employees does.”

In addition to representation, labor organizations also serve as the enforcers of collective bargaining agreements. This means any deals made between employers and their workforce are carried out under the oversight of the union.

360 Video: TAs on Strike


Why couldn’t an agreement be made between the GEO and UIC administration without the need for a strike?

“It comes down to what’s going to motivate the two parties to reach an agreement,” Malin said.

Essentially, a strike or even just the threat of a strike is an economic weapon wielded by unions to increase bargaining power. Without this weapon, employers don’t have much of an incentive to reach an agreement because they are not the ones who are unsatisfied with their current work environment.

In the case of our GEO strike, UIC administrators had no issue with the current graduate/teaching assistant contracts. It’s actually beneficial for them to remain in contract negotiations rather than settle the bargaining agreement because while the bargaining takes place, the contracts stay the same. In the case of UIC, the administrators kept the GEO in negotiations for over a year.

When something like this happens and the process of bargaining breaks down, unions are left no choice but to brandish their most valuable economic weapon - a strike. 

Why didn’t the GEO have a contract with good wages and no fees, to begin with?

The reason is that the GEO falls under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. This law is what makes it legal for employees to form labor organizations and engage in bargaining as a collective.

But, the statute doesn’t say anything about minimum wages or things of that nature.

Malin said “the IELRA is only concerned with giving employees the power to bargain for better wages and hours through the use of union representation rather than laying down a basis for employee needs. In short, when the law was made, congressional thought was that employers should set the groundwork and labor organizations should bargain after standards were established.”

How typical are strikes?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 20 major work stoppages in 2018, which is the highest in the U.S. since 2007 (21).  Eight of the 2018 strikes related directly toward the educational services industry.

The number of represented employees involved in strikes in 2018 was over 485,000, which is the highest number of workers since 1986 (over 533,000 workers).

It’s important to note that strikes occur more frequently when employment rates are high. It’s also important to note that while data is collected on work stoppages, there is no data relating to notices of intent to strike. This means that there may be unreported incidents of labor organizations using the power of strikes to reach bargaining agreements without having to go on strike.

Cassandra Smith a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History and a participant of the TA and GEO strike, said the strikers put their health, income and personal life on the line for nearly a month to ensure that they received the treatment they felt they deserved from the administration.

“I ended up sustaining a foot injury from being on the picket line, a number of people had injuries to their feet, wrists, hands,” Smith said. 

What prompted the strike?

After a year of unsuccessful bargaining of contracts with the UIC administration, the graduate students picked up picket signs until the administration was willing to make them what they thought was a fair contract that included salary increases and fee reductions.

“We haven’t had a contract since last March and admin was not willing to come anywhere close to the terms that we were seeking,” Smith said. “They were offering us an 11% over the span of five years, so that’s nowhere keeping up with the actual rate in inflation, let alone an actual increase.”

Prior to the strike, graduate employees were being paid $18,000 a year and received free tuition in return for 20-hour work weeks for two semesters. However, according to Smith, none of this was reality.

“Salary before fees is roughly $18,000, but on my W-2 last year, it stated that I made just over $17,000 before taxes, campus care fees, and student care fees,” she said.

During the strike, GEO was asking to receive a notable salary raise of 22.6 percent over the next three years, ensuring that graduate students, especially international would have the income affording them to pay rent, buy groceries, and not have to stress about making $18,000 last a full year. Along with the 22.6 percent increase in salary, GEO was also seeking a decrease in general fees that are expected to rise an additional $50 per semester, making them $962.

What is a typical work week like for graduate students?

According to the UIC contract, a 20-hour work week is required in order for graduate students to receive their benefits and salary, however, Smith and UIC Professor Laurie Schaffner noted that a graduate’s workload often exceeds the 20-hour requirement, leaving little to no time for the students to get their personal work done.

“Working as a teaching assistant, what that has meant for me is that during most semesters I teach a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class of about 35-75 per class," Smith said. "I have been responsible for the syllabus development, doing all the research, pulling together all the materials, and of course, doing all of the gradings as well. There are definitely some weeks where students are turning in research papers, or doing midterms and finals where the work that I do far surpasses the 20 hours per week.” 

360 Video: TAs on Strike


Schaffner stressed the importance of her teaching assistants and their contribution to the classroom.

 “They are responsible for doing all the grading, meeting with students, helping them figure out the main points of lectures, so I can’t teach a class of 120 students without them,”  she said.

The inability to teach a class without TAs left many teachers scrambling for solutions, that ultimately ended up with a huge chunk of classes being canceled during the duration of the strike. In return, this left many students fearful about what this meant for their status in the class and what they were to do if the strike lasted through till the end of classes.

Schaffner was one of the many professors who canceled regular times during the strike due to the inability to effectively teach in the absence of TAs.

“It was a really hard decision," Shaffner said. "I did not want students to miss out on the opportunity to be exposed to the ideas and knowledge I had prepared for them. I got a lot of emails from students expressing their concern, but we aren’t the ones that can stop it, we’re all in this together.” 

In the wake of the strike, Smith spent some time reflecting on the efforts put in by every member of the union, as well as reflecting on what this win means for them and how far they still have to go in order to receive the salary and benefits they deem fair.

“I can tell you that we fought we really, really hard for every gain we made," Smith said. "None of it came easy. I feel really good about what we achieved. I know that when we go back in just over two years, we’re going to have to do it all over again.” 

For a complete outline of the new GEO contracts visit UIC.geo.net

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