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“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.

Columbia grad students go on strike to protest university’s efforts to block unionization

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

More than a year after graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, hundreds of students participated in a walkout Tuesday to protest the university’s refusal to bargain with them.

The students plan to stage a week-long strike during what is the university’s most hectic time, when students and professors are preparing for finals and the help of graduate teaching assistants, fellows, and research assistants is critical.

They claim that the university has “repeatedly ignored” the majority support among graduate students for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University-United Automobile Workers (GWC-UAW). This, despite the fact that efforts to unionize have been ongoing for more than three years.

The conflict between the university and its students regarding unionization is rooted in a fundamental disagreement about whether or not graduate students are university employees — students argue that they are, and the university contends that they’re not.

The distinction is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of rights, better wages, and improved working conditions. According to a January 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, graduate teaching assistants have taken on heavier workloads, have more responsibility when it comes to teaching and grading, and assume much of the research that ends up winning the universities grants and prestige.

“And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage,” the report stated.

The EPI report found that between 2005 and 2015, the rise in graduate assistant and non-tenure-track faculty jobs surpassed that of tenured and tenure-track jobs, with the former currently making up approximately 73 percent of the academic workforce.

“The simple explanation for this increasing reliance on graduate and non-tenure-track faculty is that they are far less costly to employ,” the report reads.

In a statement last week, Columbia University provost John H. Coatsworth said “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.”

Coatsworth noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has “repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years,” and called for a judicial review of the “still-unsettled question.” The most recent decision came in 2016, when the NLRB ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form a union. That ruling is expected to be reversed again under the current Trump administration.

Other universities across the country, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have also recently taken steps toward unionization. Harvard graduate students voted to unionize with UAW last week.

“This growing momentum makes clear that Columbia’s efforts to block our democratic rights here on our campus cannot hold back the rising tide of academic workers seeking to improve our conditions and make our universities more just and inclusive for all,” a statement posted on the GWC website on Monday reads. “Columbia administration needs to get on the right of history and negotiate with our union.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Adjuncts Win Union Contract at Maryland Institute College of Art

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Bruce VailThe national movement to unionize part-time faculty at U.S. colleges and universities has secured an initial beachhead in the Baltimore area with ratification of a first contract between Service Employees International Union Local 500 and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Voting on the ratification concluded in mid-September and a formal signing ceremony for the pact is set for October 8, labor representatives report.

It’s the first union contract for any bargaining unit of part-time faculty, or adjuncts, in the city’s greater metropolitan area, where thousands of such workers are employed at about a dozen similar private and public educational institutions. The overwhelming ratification vote of 91-7 came following a protracted contract negotiation initiated when a union organizing drive won collective bargaining rights for about 300 MICA adjuncts in April of last year.

But the strong vote in favor of ratification probably came from union members “more excited about finally having a contract than the specific terms of the contract itself,” comments Joshua Smith, a MICA adjunct who served on the union negotiating committee. The three-year contract falls short of member expectations in several key areas, he concedes. Yet many members also recognize that settling on a first contract is a “vital step forward” to realizing the union’s long-term goals.

A desire for an across-the-board wage increase was frustrated, for example, by MICA administrators who would only agree to an indirect approach to a modest raise in pay, Smith says. The new contract adapts an existing pay scale—ranging from a low of $3,329 for a three-credit course to a high of $5,040—to allow adjuncts to more easily advance up the scale, while also providing an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), Smith says.

“The pathway to advancement is easier, plus the COLA, so there is something for almost all the members. But the base is still too low and [the union has] to attack the pay inequity between veteran, part-time and full-time faculty” in the future, says Smith. (The full text of the agreement is available online at the SEIU Local 500 web site.)

A statement sent out under the name of MICA President Sammy Hoi glossed over the pay issue and stressed the non-economic features of the contract:

The agreement covers a wide range of subjects including changes to compensation, creating a professional development fund, establishing standards governing the appointment and re-appointment of part-time faculty, and creating an evaluation process that will foster continued excellence in teaching. …

As an important step in promoting sustainability in higher education, this contract reflects MICA’s commitment to leadership and to the part-time faculty in the MICA community. MICA and Local 500 look forward to continuing to work together in the implementation of this agreement and building a strong, professional relationship that will advance the interests of our students and the MICA community as a whole.

Debra Rubino, MICA’s Vice President of Startegic Communications adds: “President Hoi, along with all of the senior administration, are very satisfied with this agreement.”

Hoi’s emphasis on the inclusion of adjuncts in the broader academic community is a reflection of union demands that part-timers be treated as professionals, Smith adds, and has been a consistent theme of adjunct organizing throughout the country. Locally, the demand is a feature of an ongoing organizing campaign at nearby Goucher College, where part-time faculty are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on the outcome of a closely contested union election there in late 2014.

Assumedly addressing the Goucher union fight, the MICA organizing committee said in a statement, “This MICA contract should cause other institutions of higher education in Baltimore to think twice about their opposition to collective bargaining process. The time for formal negotiations on the status of adjuncts at MICA was long overdue, and, now that they have taken place, the college is better for it. … A strong, active Part Time Faculty Union is a platform for involvement in the future of MICA and the education of its students. Any administration should welcome that.”

The statement can also be read as a message to other colleges and universities in the region. Stirrings of union support for an adjuncts union are evident at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, and also at the University of Baltimore, Smith says. Furthermore, a coalition of unions including the Maryland State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and SEIU Local 500 is agitating for legislation to ease unionization of the state’s community college system.

Finalizing a first contract at MICA is important to these efforts as well as to the MICA instructors themselves, Smith concludes, by demonstrating that adjuncts can establish new collective bargaining units despite official opposition. Baltimore’s culture of treating adjuncts as second-class academic citizens needs to come to an end, he says, and the MICA contract is a hopeful sign that the end is coming in to sight.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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