The Graduate Student Employment Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois is going on strike tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM. I know this blog is primarily about the study of Mormon History, but inasmuch as almost all of its contributors are involved in Graduate Education I thought they might be interested in the following letter I wrote to my undergraduate students as an explanation for the strike. I think it tries to explain and interrogate the rapid corporatization of universities all over the country. I promise I will write something about Mormon history soon 🙂 We would also appreciate any support from those of you in Illinois.
If you haven’t heard by now, the strike committee for the GEO has called a strike that will start tomorrow at 8:00 AM. This means that there will be no discussion section meetings in the time that the strike continues. It also means that I will be unavailable for any consultation, help, or communication in regards to the course. I am sorry that it has come to this. I wish that you all did not have to suffer because of the strike. Please remember that we are only striking because of the actions of the University–withholding our labor is the only recourse we have to fight University practices that continue to infringe upon the quality of instruction and learning here at the U of I. The strike is the administration’s fault. This is not a decision that was taken lightly. The contract for Teaching Assistants ran out in mid-August of this year. The representatives of our Union have been trying to negotiate with the administration about the contract since May, but did not even receive an offer from their side until right before our current contract ran out. Their contract offer for the next three years was actually much worse than our previous contract which was about to end. It offered no raises for the next three years to keep up with inflation and actually included language that would allow the University to issue furloughs, which means that in theory they would not pay us for any work during the Winter and Spring breaks when we are grading finals and entering grades for our students. This means we would possibly be doing the same amount of work for less pay. Also, the administration refused language in the contract that would protect out-of-state tuition wavers which most of us from other places rely on to stay in school. This contract was unacceptable and so we have been working without the protection of a contract ever since–pretty much the entire semester. We have compromised a lot with the University since August, and we have come to agreements on wages, furloughs, and even health care–these agreements have only come to pass because we have threatened to strike. But the administration still has refused to grant us any guarantees in regard to our tuition waivers. I know that many of you struggle to pay rapidly rising tuition rates here at the University, so you might be able to understand why we, as graduate students, value these tuition waivers enough to strike about them. Most of us are from out of state, so we would even have to pay the out of state rate if we were to lose this benefit. We really do not understand why the University will not budge on this issue. Giving us waivers does not cost them anything. Tuition waivers are like scholarships–they don’t generally represent real money. The University simply agrees not to charge us tuition because of the research we do and prestige we bring to the institution. The waivers would only become real money if the University decided to change their policies, and they wouldn’t be so stubborn about the issue if this wasn’t a real possibility for the University. Thus, we are striking to protect the benefits we were promised when we came to the University.
As you all can tell, in classes like EALC/Hist 120 the TA’s do the majority of the work. We are not, however, paid very well for it–especially when you consider that all of us have Bachelor’s and some of us have Master’s Degrees. Also, almost all graduate students are self-supporting which means that our parents don’t give us any money for school. Many, like me, are married and some even have children and try to live on their small stipends. The relationship between the university and graduate students should be mutually beneficial. They promise to provide us with jobs to help support our time here as students, while we provide them with the labor to teach a lot of the undergraduate classes. This isn’t something that just anyone could do. Most professors consider themselves too swamped with the research requirements made on them to achieve tenure to teach any more classes than they already do, thus the TA’s fulfill an essential role. If TA’s wages and benefits decrease, the University becomes less competitive in recruiting the best graduate students to come here. If the quality of graduate students goes down, so will the quality of your TA’s. At the same time that the administration has been fighting us over every single penny, the University has used large amounts of money to pay severance packages to its corrupt outgoing president and chancellor. It has also spent millions of dollars in legal fees trying to defend them and their illegal actions. Even after White and Herman resigned, they received cushy appointments at the University where they receive six figure salaries to teach fewer students than the average TA. And now the University wants to take away what TA’s already have to pay for the mistakes of their administrators. Remember that the money they spent was YOUR money–the tuition that you often have to struggle to put together. We think that the administration of the University needs to change its priorities back to the students, graduate and undergraduate, and so the TA’s and administration are at an impasse over tuition waivers. I feel like my only option is to stand on principle and go on strike. I really don’t want to hurt any of you, the undergraduates, who are the reason the university is here. I hope this email explains the situation and answers any questions you might have. If you do have more questions about the strike let me know, and I would be happy to answer them. If you would like to help us pressure the administration to resolve this issue you or your parents can contact the administration at these two numbers: Christopher G. Kennedy, President MMPI Phone: (312) 527-7890 ex: 7890 Or: Robert Easter, Interim Chancellor and Provost Phone: (217) 244-4545. I hope to see you all soon, but I can’t promise I will.
(Post Update) Lest you think these problems only occur in Illinois, the University of California system has been wrought with turmoil as thousands of graduate students, staff members, professors, and undergraduates came together last week to protest tuition hikes, waiver revocations, and furloughs. Why is it than when the economy tanks, education is one of the first cuts? Every dollar spent for education eventually generates more than four dollars in tax revenue. Is there any better investment for state and national governments? Once cuts do happen, why do administrators turn to the corporate model to make things work? Comments have been closed, and I don’t want a rehash of previous debates. I just thought that people would like to know that our TA strike was not an isolated event.