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Posts Tagged ‘University of Illinois at Chicago’

“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.

When Janus Backfires: A Test Case In Labor Solidarity After Fair Share

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In the aftermath of this summer’s Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision attacking public-sector unions, the University of Illinois at Chicago is rapidly becoming a bellwether for how those unions might sink or swim in a world without fair share.

UIC prides itself on being one of the most diverse college campuses in the country and one of the most welcoming to working-class students. The city’s only public research university and home to a vast hospital system, UIC employs a cross section of public-sector workers including nurses, teachers, clerical workers, and maintenance workers, nearly all of whom are unionized.

In recent years, university officials have rightly issued public statements critical of government actions that harm members of the campus community, including Trump’s Muslim ban, the Illinois state budget impasse, and the House GOP’s failed attempt to tax graduate student tuition waivers. But since the Supreme Court issued its anti-union decision in the Janus case this June—threatening the collective bargaining rights of thousands of university employees—the administration has been silent. Instead, through their actions, administrators have indicated a willingness to use Janus to engage in union busting.

In the first month after the ruling came down, the university payroll office failed to deduct dues from hundreds of card-signed union members from several unions on campus, including UIC United Faculty (UICUF), the Illinois Nurses Association (INA)SEIU Local 73, and my own union, the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). In the case of GEO, this cost our relatively small local of graduate student workers a whopping $10,000.

UIC’s failure to deduct member dues in July was not only illegal, but it also effectively silenced workers who actually want to pay dues because they enjoy having workplace rights. The administration openly admitted they hadn’t deducted dues, but said they weren’t going to do anything to remedy this obvious legal violation. Instead, they’ve forced the unions into a protracted grievance and arbitration dispute, apparently hoping they can simply tire us out or outspend us in legal fees.

Further, the administration is claiming the right to unilaterally process membership revocations without notifying the unions, which goes against university HR’s own policy. They also refuse to provide us with timely information about which employees are in our respective bargaining units, which is especially harmful for GEO since our bargaining unit changes dramatically every semester. Not knowing exactly who we represent at all times makes it difficult to sign up new members and impossible to ensure UIC is deducting dues correctly.

In August, GEO discovered that the university had mistakenly deducted dues from sixty nonmembers, individuals we had never claimed were union members in the first place. Mistakes like this put the union at legal risk, since the erroneously deducted money goes into our local’s bank account and makes the local liable for “taking” it. We alerted the administration immediately and they quickly corrected the error. What we still haven’t been able to figure out is why a handful of grad workers, overwhelmed with our normal teaching and research responsibilities and representing our union as volunteers, have to tell well-paid administrators at a multibillion-dollar institution like UIC how to do their jobs.

All of this comes as our unions are in the middle of contract negotiations. Even before Janus, UIC was already prone to bullying campus workers at the bargaining table and pushing us into going on strike. In 2014, faculty with UICUF had to strike to win their first contract. Last fall, the INA-represented staff nurses and administrative nurses at the UI Hospital came within a hair’s breadth of walking off the job before an eleventh-hour agreement was reached. This past spring, grad workers at the Urbana-Champaign campus had to strike for nearly two weeks in order to safeguard tuition waivers.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the administration has tried to exploit the post-Janus confusion around dues deductions to gain an advantage in bargaining, presumably to pressure us into making concessions on issues that matter to our members in exchange for the continued existence of our unions. When GEO first questioned why the administration had not deducted July member dues, they said they would only discuss it with us in contract negotiations—never mind that abiding by existing contract language and existing law is non-negotiable.

UIC grad workers—whose baseline pay is only $18,000 and who are forced to pay up to $2,000 in fees every year—are fighting for living wages and fee waivers. UIC’s tenured and nontenured faculty are fighting for increased job security, shared governance, and raises. That should be the focus of negotiations, not bureaucratic procedures around dues deductions.

The administration is waging its most vicious attack on the underpaid Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) with INA at the UI Hospital, who have also been in bargaining since Janus came down. Shortly after the ruling was issued, the university decided to bring in a new lead negotiator, who proceeded to tear up previously agreed-upon articles and introduce extremely regressive proposals in their place. Among other things, UIC is demanding LPNs surrender their right to engage in virtually any kind of concerted activity at the workplace, while demanding INA publicly disavow any kind of protest carried out by its members and threatening to single out union leaders for discipline.

UIC administrators seem to have assumed that Janus would leave our unions weakened and afraid, allowing them to ride roughshod over us and impose terrible contracts. But they miscalculated.

Thanks to the administration’s handling of Janus, the campus unions are working together closely. In late July, members of INA, UICUF, SEIU Local 73, and GEO held a joint march on the boss, showing up unexpectedly at the office of the head of university Labor Relations to demand accountability around the failure to deduct dues. Clearly rattled by this, the administration has since been far more careful around processing deductions and correcting errors when we point them out.

Meanwhile, all of our unions have filed or plan to file both grievances and Unfair Labor Practice charges. GEO and UICUF are ramping up our respective contract campaigns, both building towards possible strikes next spring which might easily coincide. This week, the LPNs will be going out on an indefinite ULP strike, and members from all four of our unions will hold a unified protest and rally as the UIC Board of Trustees gathers on campus for a meeting.

The budding coalition of UIC unions should be on every labor activist’s radar, as it’s emblematic of what a post-Janus world can look like for public-sector unions: a huge uptick in hostility from the boss met with more solidarity, more organizing, more direct action, more strikes, and a deeper determination to fight for our rights as public sector workers to ensure our students get the education they deserve, and our patients get the care they deserve.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.

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