Graduate Employee Strike at the University of Illinois at Chicago: What Was It and What’s Left
Graduate student workers at University of Illinois-Chicago, represented by the Graduate Employee Organization, rallied after they went on strike. The GEO ended the week-long strike after agreeing to a new, 3-year contract. Ashlee Rezin/Sun- Times
After a year of bargaining with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) (with the help of a federal monitor) over unlivable wages, little sexual assault/bullying protections and other issues, a very exhausted Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) finally made the arduous decision to pause their classes and go on strike.
On April 17th, 2022, as students were making their way between classes, more than 100 members of the GEO held a rally in the Quad, in the center of UIC’s campus. The contract for the GEO ended just over a year prior to the strike. Negotiations between the administration and the union, which has 1,500 members, started underway in April 2021, but they stalled once they got to economic problems. The union held a strike vote on April 1 and 97% of voting members voted in favor of the strike.
“What we were fighting for wasn’t anything strange. It was for a living wage. It was for something that should be a guaranteed right. And while the strike lasted only for a few days, it was an overarching fear that I felt all of us graduate students felt was coming down the line,” shared one graduate student. “We felt so unheard and because so many people spent months in negotiations with the university and were getting absolutely nowhere, we felt that this was what had to be done to protect ourselves, and to protect our students, and our right to live peacefully and with total security; both financial and personal.”
One of the main grievances of the GEO was a lack of a livable wage. Despite the average amount of rent being around $26,472/year, many graduate workers were only racking in about a mere $20,000. “They offered a 0% raise when we were bargaining, which was when inflation was at 8% and it went up to 9%… It’s not sustainable. And that’s especially true for our international workers who legally cannot get jobs outside of UIC,” said co-president of the GEO Marty Heath. Heath explained that no raise along with many of the graduate students’ rent going up and having to pay additional fees (as international students have to pay an additional international student fee) — the people are who need the most support and weren’t getting it.
Heath also noted that there was an element of if-I’m-not-getting-a-raise-why-should-you type behavior that was rather patronizing. Ultimately, the culmination of this conduct along with the fundamental want to not give your workers a raise means that most graduate employees who can, need to obtain a second job to make ends meet — this takes time away from their students and other responsibilities at the university.
The same behavior overlapped when discussing issues of harassment. The GEO wanted to incorporate definitions and illustrations of sexual harassment and bullying at work in their contract. The university declined to include both. The university’s chief negotiator offered a vague and haphazard process of talking to a department head, or perhaps an HR manager when pressed about what employees should do when they are bullied since there is no university policy on this.
According to the UIC GEO website, “One bargaining committee member spoke passionately about her experiences with OAE and how that office has broken trust between UIC and its community. [They] pointed to the statistic that of 27 complaints of discrimination filed by graduate students in five academic years, in only 1 did OAE find that the respondent had violated UIC policy.” At least 26 individuals who needed assistance were let down by UIC. The University was ill-equipped to stop or undo the harm done to individuals who have suffered the most on its campus, which emphasizes how crucial the solutions they presented are.
There was also much back and forth concerning settling on language about harassment, unless graduate workers settled for unclear language regarding a lockout, despite lockouts being illegal.
“We asked what it would even look like to lock us out from our jobs, considering it would lock us out of Blackboard where I’m putting in student grades, because that would also lock me out of my classes, right?” Heath wondered. “Are you going to take away our UIC zoom accounts? Because I still need to take classes there. Are you going to lock us out of the library or our offices because again? Those are buildings where I take classes. So the fact that we’re both employees and students and we kind of exist in this weird middle ground made us say first, you can’t legally lock us out and you’re also giving away nothing by just adding this to the contract.”
Not only was the fear of a lock-out somewhat being held over their heads, but there was also a fear of the ramifications of the strike, especially since UIC sent forms to students asking if their classes were being disrupted, which they are not allowed to do. According to an anonymous graduate student, they were also sending in advisors and instructors to check in on classes taught by GA’s just to see whether they were teaching or on strike. This way, the university didn’t have to explicitly ask them who would be picketing, which is, evidently, not allowed.
There’s always the argument that a strike is overall harmful to students, especially given that it was around finals time so students weren’t getting the support they needed during a crucial time in the school year. In response to this point, the GA asserted that “[UIC GEO] were at the bargaining table for months and months and months and [UIC] were the ones who kept shooting down every single proposal, and every counter proposal. It is unfair because I want to teach as much as students want to learn and the university essentially is the one who forced this decision out of us. It was not something that we did happily, by any stretch of the imagination.”
When student Dallace Foster (‘25) was asked if she was at all disrupted or thrown off by the strike she declared, “If I’m being honest, I wasn’t affected by the GEO strike. I remember maybe two out of five classes being rescheduled but I don’t think it caused a dramatic shift in my day. I think it was a nice movement and it’s important that people are paid proper wages.” She then admitted, “I will say that it was a little frustrating because I had exams coming up at the time and my discussion classes were canceled but I studied on my own and it was fine but it would’ve been nice to have the resources.”
In the end, UIC and the GEO eventually came to an agreement that would end the strike a few days later. Some of the key elements of the agreed-upon contract regarding anti-discrimination and anti-harassment are:
Process for assistants who may have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination to request supportive measures with the option of union representation through this process
Appeal process if requests for supportive measures are denied with the option of union representation through this process
Explanation of decision by OAE to not investigate a complaint within 10 business days
Denunciation of workplace bullying and commitment to upholding the University Code of Conduct
They also agreed on some raises:
Academic Year (AY) 2022-2023: $22,590 (9.58% raise)
AY 2023-2024: $23,440 (3.76% raise)
AY 2024-2025: $24,200 (3.24% raise)
This includes a $2,000 lump sum in retroactive pay for those who worked Fall & Spring and a $1,000 lump sum for those who worked Spring.
Heath affirmed that there’s always work to be done and more policies that the University can implement to make being a graduate student less stressful and more comfortable. However, they admitted that compromise is inevitable and essential when bargaining, though the GEO do deserve to prioritize what they need the most. On the other hand, Heath also pointed out that research assistants don’t get the same backpay they earned, don’t have the six weeks guaranteed of parental leave, don’t have the caps on all their fees and don’t automatically get any of the wins GA’s do, so their unionization would be life changing.
If you didn’t know, it’s also important to mention that 48,000 UIC graduate student workers have gone on a monumental strike in the last month. The exploitation of student workers is far from a UIC issue or a Chicago issue. Students and educators nationwide are realizing the importance of unification and are standing against unfair labor practices.
Ultimately, it’s crucial to remember that at large, it’s essential for institutions to communicate effectively with their employees and maintain compassion because of how easy it is to become overwhelmed by the obligation to defend the market that is higher education.
Students are fundamentally consumers while education is the commodity and universities feel as though they must defend and safeguard that commodity. The strike occurred as a result of the institution placing money and finances above the lives of undergraduate and graduate students though luckily, we’re at a place where unions are given the chance to fight for what they deserve.