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UIC Graduate Employee Organization Shows Strength and Unity on First Day of Strike

Tom Ackerman, Carrie Boike, Matt Cuartero | Posted on March 20, 2019

UIC TAs protest at the picket lines

Tom Ackerman

Cars honked and graduate students chanted outside the Jane Addams Hull House on South Halsted Street yesterday. The University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Employees Organization, which is comprised of around 1,600 graduate students, is on strike.

UIC TAs gather for the 12:30pm combined picket line

UIC TAs gather for the 12:30pm combined picket line

After meeting for 12 hours on Monday, union members and university administration agreed on new appointment policies which were disputed but disagreed on wage disputes, which led to the start of an indefinite strike.

“The mood was tense, especially towards the end,” Anne Kirkner said, who is the co-president of GEO. “This is a risk for us,” she said. “We didn’t really want to do this.” Kirkner is not a part of the negotiating team but she said she watched some of the negotiations transpire over the course of Monday.

Tuesday showed hundreds of union members, undergraduate students, and faculty striking throughout UIC’s campus.

Both GEO and faculty union have worked under an expired contract for a year. Negotiations have taken place since then and have stemmed around what graduate students say are unlivable wages, coupled with the fact that UIC is undergoing extensive construction projects and shows its highest enrollment numbers in history. The university says they are willing to compromise and also want to see a better future for the university, but that strikes are not the answer.

The university will meet with GEO again on Friday.

It was agreed that appointment policies and reappointment policies would be offered to students through standardized criteria in 2020. Before, Kirkner said, students knew few details surrounding a potential job when they applied for teaching assistant or graduate assistant positions. She said it would be very unlikely for the agreement to be reversed because it was done in the presence of the negotiating mediator. “We expected them to meet us closer in the middle, in doing [changing the appointment policy], but by the end of the night, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen,” Kirkner said.

The university has issued statements about the strike and negotiations leading to the strike but has declined to comment. Referring to GEO’s requests for higher wages and less fees, a university statement Tuesday said “UIC is dependent on the revenue from the general and international fees and is unable to meet requests to waive those fees for GEO employees,” which was signed by Chancellor Michael Amiridis, Provost Susan Poser, and Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs Robert Barish.

Many classes were held online or took place in different locations than usual, with professors citing an inability to cross picket lines.

Kirkner understood the lack of classes as a measure of solidarity from the faculty union. Union officials ask professors to not take on extra work that the graduate students are responsible for, as it could extend the length of a strike.

Megan Marshall (right) and her family

Megan Marshall (right) and her family

38-year-old Megan Marshall is a first year PhD student and a TA in the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies. She’s also a mother of two daughters and comes from a union family.

“My husband is a union electrician, I was a union electrician, and my parents were in unions, so I’m very familiar with union politics,” said Marshall, who’s situation is unique among graduate workers. “I’m married and my husband can support us.”

It would be impossible for Marshall to live off of just her wages from UIC.

I cannot feed my children or pay my bills with a tuition waiver.

Many graduate workers lack the support system that Marshall has, and struggle just to support themselves. Marshall says it is common to hear her co-workers say they only have $20 left in their bank account and will not get paid for another week. “I don’t know a grad student who’s not living with two or three other grad students,” she said.

However, the university has not been sympathetic to the struggles graduate students face. In the statement released Tuesday morning, they said, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.”

In response, Marshall argued, “It’s not. I don’t think anyone wants to be on strike, we want to work. I don’t want my students to miss classroom time, but at a certain point, you have to stop and say enough is enough.”

The GEO states that UIC graduate workers are some of the lowest paid in Chicago and make $10,000 less than their colleagues at other Research 1 universities in the city. Marshall, who’s sister is a graduate employee at Northwestern knows this from experience. “She makes about $12,000 more than I do, and she teaches way less,” she said.

Marshall teaches about 60 students per year, and says there is never enough time to give all of them attention. The relationship between graduate workers and undergraduate students seemed to be a theme at today’s rally. As picketers gathered on the quad at noon, Veronica Shepp, Chief Steward of GEO and UIC doctoral student, could be heard shouting into a megaphone, “Undergraduates, we care about you! You’re learning conditions are our working conditions.”

UIC GEO Strike Interviews, March 19, 2019

In addition to the many conflicts TA’s such as Marshall experience under the expired contract, TA’s who are also international students have even more tribulations to deal with, such as international student fees. These fees lower the net income of international students even more than their domestic counterparts. “The $14,000 net that we make after fees and taxes is what we have to stretch for 12 months,” TA Zukhra Kasimova, UIC Department of History said. “We [International TAs] cannot work in the summer off campus.”

Some TAs are even struggling with attaining adequate sustenance with the amount they make at UIC. “Recently, they [University of Illinois Administration] said something like, there’s so many events being held on campus, there’s leftover food from those events, so you can show up and get the food.” Kasimova said.

Undergraduate students demonstrated support by joining the picket lines, as well, which occured not only on Halsted Street but at designated rally points on campus.

Brenton Boitse is a UIC student and a member of the Roosevelt Institute, which is a student policy organization that has been working with the graduate students and the faculty union. Boitse chanted through the microphone. “Working conditions are learning conditions. I think most students understand that,” Boitse said.

He added that one or two undergraduate students approached him with negative comments, such as complaints of the noise, but that most undergraduate support was positive.

Support among faculty and students is stronger than ever, so the question we should be asking is why the university administration refuses to budge on paying its graduate workers a living wage. Marshall urged the university to stay true to its values “Being a public university means something, and it should mean that there’s access for the people in our community.”


IG: carrieboike, mattcuartero

Twitter: @Tom_AckermanDI

TAs, undergraduate students, and faculty members alike hit the picket lines right outside of Student Center East

TAs, undergraduate students, and faculty members alike hit the picket lines right outside of Student Center East Thomas Ackerman

Picket line leaders chant into the megaphone

Picket line leaders chant into the megaphone Matt Cuartero

Chants of

Chants of “show me what democracy looks like!” and “get down, Chicago is a union town” rallies the crowd Matt Cuartero

UIC's Student Center East on Halsted

UIC’s Student Center East on Halsted Tom Ackerman

Megan Marshall (right) and her family

Megan Marshall (right) and her family Carrie Boike



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