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Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs at GEO Rally, Bernie Sanders supports GEO, UIC’s Symphony of Uni

Tom Ackerman | Posted on April 02, 2019

John Hagstrom, a trumpeter with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Janet Smith, President of the faculty union, is also pictured.

John Hagstrom, a trumpeter with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Janet Smith, President of the faculty union, is also pictured.

Members of the Chicago Symphony orchestra performed at the Graduate Employee Organization rally on Monday. GEO enters its their third week of negotiations while on strike.

The symphony orchestra is also on strike and the performance may be seen as reflective to the symphony of union activity that is occurring at UIC.

John Hagstrom, a trumpeter and Youming Chen, a violist, performed at the rally. Hagstrom spoke and compared the two organizations’ strike. “We share the uncertainty and maybe the fear.” He said strikes are necessary when they are based on a belief of pursuing excellence, such as in education and in music.

“It’s hard to play when it’s cold out,” he joked after performing a song with the aid of backing music from a speaker. When testing the speaker and apologizing that the accompaniment was not by the usual orchestra, he said he hears UIC gives their own tests, too.

GEO has protested outside Board of Trustee offices and has sent an open letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker describing concerns, based on the Governor’s campaign promises to offer additional funding to the university system.

The faculty union meanwhile plans vote on whether they will strike in coming weeks.

Charitianne Williams is a member of the faculty union bargaining team. She said both the faculty union and the administration have offered proposals many times and both parties have rejected one another on varying points of debate, but that progress has been made. “Negotiations can be hard because people hold cards close to their chests,” she said. “You have to be told no several times before you know what it means.”

She said a strike level has not yet been reached, surrounding debates on wages and tenure tracks but that the union is discussing the possibility of striking. Williams reiterated that GEO and the faculty union bargaining tables are not related but that there are some rules of what professors can and cannot do, such as that professors cannot legally survey or record the striking students. Professors and undergraduate students can often be seen within GEO protests.

Williams said faculty are allowed to express their support and to picket, as several departments have done, in addition to sending formal letters of support, which many UIC departments have sent to the administration, in support of GEO and collectively signed. “It’s illegal for an employer to monitor strikers in ways they were not monitored before,” Williams said. She said that from her understanding, “if you always had to punch a clock, then your boss has a right to notice you didn’t punch clock.”

Likewise, professors can hold class online or hold it off campus. Brenton Boitse is an undergraduate student and a member of the Roosevelt Institute, which is a student public policy group. Boitse has been involved with both unions and recently attended a GEO meeting which he described as condescending towards the graduate students.

“The point of protest is to disrupt the status quo. If you’re going on as if nothing is wrong, it defeats the purpose.” Boitse added that disruption does not have to entail a total shutdown but that holding classes off campus, for example, may have a potential slow down effect and “let students know that this is very serious.”

Boitse was able to meet with faculty and GEO officials to better understand their concerns. “When a student has a problem, they can talk to their professor directly but most of the administration doesn’t have student facing positions. The administration doesn’t know what concerns students have,” he said.

GEO Co-President Jeff Schuhrke said real decision makers have not been present at GEO meetings. He said Provost Susan Poser has attended several faculty union bargaining sessions but has not attended any GEO sessions. “The lead negotiator on Saturday told us he didn’t have the authority to talk about certain things that are important,” he said. “Somebody who is a decision maker needs to come if they are serious about ending this.”

Schuhrke also confirmed that administration called police to provide security in plain clothes at a Tuesday meeting last week and the police “looked bored.”

GEO has referenced the university’s mega construction project in argument and recent bonuses to administrative figures.

The university has shared its own perspective through emails and online updates to students and faculty. The university letters, signed by various officials, including Chancellor Michael Amiridis and Provost Susan Poser, cite arguments such as that graduate students are earning $62,000 a year, including their tuition waiver, which administrators say is both sufficient in wage and necessary for the university to sustain itself.

GEO will not know whether their pay has been withheld until April 16, when they are scheduled to be paid.

In addition to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders expressing support as well as many UIC groups and departments, Schuhrke said “we’ve had support from lots of unions across country, especially graduate worker unions at other universities who are watching us very closely because they have similar kinds of fights going on at their universities.”

“The faculty union has been very helpful in talking to their own members, Schuhrke added. The administration is trying to get the faculty to do our work, which faculty don’t have to do. It’s outside of their job description.”

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