Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Hurts UIC Grad Workers

The Supreme Court decision today to roll back workers’ rights in Janus vs. AFSCME negatively affects all us who work and study here at UIC. The decision means only the people who sign union membership cards will be paying dues to GEO, even though our union will still be forced to represent non-members.  In this new environment, those who don’t sign membership cards are decreasing all of our collective power to win raises and stronger worker protections.

Big corporations and billionaire-funded anti-worker groups have been pushing for just such a court ruling for a long time. They know that when people aren’t signed up as dues-paying members, unions can’t survive, and then workers lose their rights. It’s an intentional effort to decimate unions by cutting off their financial resources, deceptively called “right to work”—but the more accurate description is “right to work for less.”

Dues are not money our union is “taking” from members. Since our first contract in 2006, we have continuously won raises amounting to a 39 percent increase, while dues have only increased 0.15 percent in the same time period (see attached graph). Dues pay for our indispensable full-time staff, materials for educating and organizing members, events, an office space, and legal services to protect members’ rights. GEO included the cost of dues in the very first raise we won, offsetting the cost of dues forever. But without dues and high membership numbers, we will lose our ability to continue winning higher raises and other benefits going forward.

Janus is modeled after so-called “right to work” private sector laws in 28 states. Because union membership rates have dropped significantly in those states, median household incomes are $8,174 less than in non-right to work states, people under 65 are 46 percent more likely to be uninsured, infant mortality rates are 12 percent higher, and workplace deaths occur 49 percent more often.

Despite these obstacles, those unions in “right to work” states that continue to maintain high membership levels continue to win gains for all of their members.

Make sure you and the other grad workers in your department sign membership cards.  You can email Anne Kirkner:, Dawn Tefft:, or your departmental steward to sign a card or otherwise get involved more in the fight to protect our union. You can also get a list of all the grad workers covered by the contract in your department so you know who needs to sign a membership card.

June 25, 2018

The Steering Committee of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, IFT/AFT Local 6297, strongly condemns the Trump Administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” immigration policy. We stand in solidarity with the unions, civil liberties organizations, public officials, community leaders, and activists who are fighting for a just and humane immigration system.

Being branded “illegal” or “criminal” creates a social stigma that can lead to multiple forms of discrimination throughout a person’s life and career, which is why GEO is currently fighting to strengthen the non-discrimination article in our contract by adding immigration/citizenship status and arrest record as protected categories. Unfortunately, the UIC administration has chosen to reject this important proposal, but we are circulating a petition to demand they take it seriously and we encourage GEO members and supporters to sign and share it.

We believe all migrants—regardless of whether they arrive as a family unit or the particular reasons they come—deserve to be treated humanely and with compassion and dignity. We reject any law, policy, government agency, political ideology, public discourse, or media cliché that serves to dehumanize an entire group of people or strip them of their basic rights. As union activists, we also reject President Trump’s brand of economic nationalism, which aims to divide the workers of the world, and instead we call for working-class unity and solidarity across borders.

Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” Policy

In effect since April 6, the “zero tolerance” policy is an attempt to “crack down” on immigrants, letting the Justice Department criminally prosecute all adults crossing the border without papers. Many of these migrants are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum. Though President Trump has said asylum seekers should cross the border at ports of entry, those who do are being denied entry anyway. As part of the crackdown, the Justice Department is even taking steps to strip citizenship from some naturalized citizens.

Worst of all, the “zero tolerance” policy forcibly separated at least 2,300 children from their parents between May 5 and June 9. Though there is nothing new about U.S. immigration enforcement being cruel, deliberately taking kids from their parents, with neither knowing when—or even if—they will ever see each other again, and locking babies and toddlers in “tender age shelters,” is particularly grotesque.

Many of the parents were deported back to their home countries or sent to far-away detention centers without their children, with no plans for how they will be reunited. Citing the long-lasting trauma created by taking kids away from their parents, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics described the separation policy as “government-sanctioned child abuse.” In response, our parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, issued a formal complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, an international body the U.S. recently withdrew from under the Trump Administration.

While President Trump’s June 20 executive order ending family separation—which only happened after massive public outcry, and after the president had initially claimed he could not do anything about it—is a positive development, it is not enough. The executive order keeps the “zero tolerance” policy in place and, worse, it calls for families to be indefinitely detained at the border. As Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “This crisis will not abate until each and every single child is reunited with his or her parent. An eleventh-hour executive order doesn’t fix the calamitous harm done to thousands of children and their parents… Children don’t belong in jail at all, even with their parents, under any set of circumstances.”

What You Can Do

We call on all GEO members and supporters to fight the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.  There will be Families Belong Together marches across the country on Saturday, June 30. In Chicago, the march will begin that day at 11am in Daley Plaza (details here). If you’re not in Chicago, you can find a local march by entering your ZIP code here.

Make sure to sign and share GEO’s petition in support of strengthening the non-discrimination article in our contract to add new protected categories, including immigration/citizenship status and arrest record.

If you want to learn more about this issue, get involved, or show solidarity, here are some places to do so:

American Civil Liberties Union

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Fearless Undocumented Alliance


National Immigrant Justice Center

United We Dream

(DRM) Dream Action Coalition


Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project

A longer list of organizations can be found here, and you can also read these articles laying out the case for abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): “5 Reasons Why Activists Are Calling for the Abolition of ICE” and “It’s Time to Abolish ICE.”

Update: March 22nd, 2018:

GEO met with the UIC administration today for our second session to bargain a new contract. Once again, GEO members from multiple departments filled the room to show the admins we’re united in wanting a fair contract. We continued discussing the 16 contract articles we’re *not* seeking to change, and the admins have now agreed not to change 13 of them. They offered a counter-proposal trying to make the language around required online training more open-ended. This could be harmful to graduate workers if it means missing a training would lead to discipline. So in response, GEO proposed more careful wording. GEO also brought a new proposal to strengthen the grievance procedure by making it more efficient and effective. These proposals will be further discussed in future sessions, after both sides give them more consideration. The next bargaining session will be Thurs., April 5, 1pm-4pm, in UH 650. As always, GEO members are encouraged to pack the room so everyone has a voice in bargaining!

by Jeff Schuhrke

The tax reform bill passed by House Republicans on November 16 wouldn’t just slash taxes for corporations and billionaires, it would also dramatically increase the tax burden for graduate student workers by counting their tuition waivers—which they receive in exchange for their labor as teaching and research assistants—as taxable income.

Furthermore, by eliminating student loan interest rate deductions and the Lifetime Learning Credit, the House bill effectively makes graduate school financially out of reach for all but the wealthy.

“I would hope that people like me in grad school would be identified as what we are—we’re working class,” Santiago Vidales, a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish and Portuguese studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells In These Times. “We make the day-to-day of a university function.”

Em Hall, 38, recently left a successful career as a nonprofit executive to pursue a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where she works as both a teaching and research assistant.

“At my age, it’s definitely a calculated risk to switch fields and enter the world of academia,” she tells In These Times. If this bill had been passed before she applied to graduate school, Hall says she is “not sure I would have left my career to become a Ph.D. student in a field different than the one I’ve worked in for a decade.”

At UIC—where I’m also at Ph.D. student working as a teaching assistant—the minimum salary for graduate employees is around $18,000, far below the estimated living wage of $26,128 for a single adult in Chicago. Meanwhile, the waived tuition for out-of-state grads is $23,720 per academic year. In other words, under the House bill, low-paid UIC graduate workers would see their taxable incomes more than double without seeing any actual new income.

For international graduate student workers—whose visas typically require that they only work on campus—the financial situation is often even more difficult since their options for earning supplemental income are limited.

In certain academic programs with higher operating costs, including Hall’s College of Urban Planning and Policy at UIC, grads are already often required to pay tuition “differentials”—extra tuition fees that are not waived, sometimes up to $5,000 per semester.

For UIC graduate student employees whose work primarily involves administrative duties instead of teaching and research, a portion of their tuition waivers are already taxed because of how their positions are legally classified. This tax is “an effective, and brutal, pay cut,” says Sarah Patton Moberg, a sociology Ph.D. student who serves as co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization/AFT 6297, the union of UIC grad workers.

These graduate assistants “have to figure out how they’re going to make it through an entire month with no pay because of the extra tax withholding,” Moberg tells In These Times. “And on wages that don’t meet the cost-of-living expenses in Chicago, that’s no minor budgeting feat.”

At private universities, where tuition can range between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, grads would see their taxes skyrocket under the GOP House bill. The tax burden for MIT grad students, for example, would increase by an astounding 240 percent.

“No one goes to grad school to make money,” says Vidales, who is the co-chair of the Graduate Employee Organization/UAW 2322, the union representing teaching and research assistants at UMass Amherst. “People make it through on very little.”

“Taxing the tuition waiver seems, to me, a way to disincentive diversity in academia, not just from a socioeconomic standpoint, but in the sense that programs like mine have students at both the Master’s and Ph.D. level with a wealth of diverse experience in their schooling and in their work experience,” Hall says. “That was a huge part of the appeal of this program to me.”

The tax reform bill comes in the midst of a wave of graduate worker unionization at some of the country’s most elite universities, following an August 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees and therefore have collective bargaining rights.

Now under Republican control, thanks to President Trump, the NLRB may reverse last year’s ruling on grad employees—something many university administrators are counting on.

Meanwhile, graduate workers at public universities like UIC and UMass—who have had the legal right to unionize for decades—are bracing for next year’s Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, which threatens to turn the entire public sector “right to work.”

“People have been coming together to form unions and there’s been a lot of energy around it, but it’s very precarious organizing with these looming Supreme Court and NLRB decisions, and now this tax bill,” Vidales says. “There’s so much out of your control.”

He adds that the House bill is not only an attack on graduate unions, but an attack on graduate school itself. “It would be ruinous. Everyone I’ve talked to says the chances of continuing studying would be really slim,” he explains.

Graduate unions across the country are mobilizing their members to call or write to lawmakers, and a national walkout of grad student workers is planned for November 29.

The current version of the Senate’s bill would not make tuition waivers taxable, but whatever legislation the Senate passes will have to be reconciled with the House bill.

“Lawmakers should support the pursuit of higher education in ways that reduce the burdens on students, not just when they’re in their programs, but afterward when the student loans are looming,” Hall says.

Pointing to a recent report showing that 60 percent of House members and 76 percent of Senators hold educational degrees beyond a bachelor’s, Hall asks, “How many of them could have afforded graduate school if their own tuition waivers were taken away?”

*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. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

GEO (Graduate Employees Organization) invites you to our first membership meeting of the academic year. Not sure what a union is or how GEO makes your time at UIC better?
This is the perfect place for you to find out!

The union leadership will be presenting on the following topics:
This year’s budget
The process of organizing towards our new contract
New contract proposals
And more!

Wednesday October 11th 
Gallery 400 
(400 S. Peoria) 
This is an opportunity to meet the union stewards and leadership that run GEO!
Most importantly, this is a first step to learn how you can get involved to make your union even stronger!

Dinner will be provided.
This space is accessible for all GEO members.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) is throwing our annual Fall Social and you’re invited! It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the important work GEO does, like the upcoming contract campaign. It’s also a fun way to meet the people already active in your union and see how you can be involved.

Please join us:
Thursday August 31st 
Dugan’s Pub (128 S. Halsted)

Monday, May 8, 2017


The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) of the University of Illinois at Chicago (IFT/AFT Local 6297) stands in solidarity with the teachers and staff at the Noble Network of Charter Schools who are organizing a union.


We support their efforts to form a union, because we understand just how necessary it is to fight for our rights in the workplace. Unions make it possible for us to improve our working conditions: from demanding fair wages to fighting against discrimination, unions are a powerful collective voice for workers. As members of unions, we are not only improving our own lives, we are working for each other and for our communities. As teaching assistants and graduate assistants at UIC, GEO members understand firsthand that our working conditions are UIC students’ learning conditions. And as our educational institutions are increasingly underfunded and teachers and staff are stretched thin, it is more important than ever to fight for a better future for our school communities. UIC GEO members recognize the incredible work of the teachers and staff of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, and we strongly support their demand for a voice at work.



The Graduate Employees Organization is the labor union that represents more than 1,400 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants at UIC. The GEO is a democratic union run by and for its members. The GEO is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the AFL-CIO.


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GEO Leadership Election Voting will be held at the following locations:
Tuesday 4/11 from 11-1:
ERF and the College of Nursing
Wednesday 4/12 from 11-1:
ERF, the College of Nursing, and SEO
*Nominations are open until the end of the day tomorrow!
For more information visit:

UIC Graduate Employees Organization Local 6297 demands a fair budget for Illinois

Picket against Governor Rauner: Thursday, March 30th at 5 pm at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S Michigan Ave.

The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Local 6297, stands with unions, community groups, and social justice organizations from across Illinois to demand that Governor Bruce Rauner pass a fair budget. For over two years, Rauner has held our state budget hostage to his anti-worker agenda. He refuses to provide the necessary funding for our schools, health centers, immigration services, senior services, and other vital social programs. He refuses to negotiate fairly with the unions representing state workers, and has tried to impose harsh and devastating contract terms – cutting wages, attacking pensions, and making health care unaffordable. He refuses to respect the rights of workers to collectively make their voices heard, and tramples on the rights and well-being of all Illinois residents.

And we refuse to accept his attacks.

As graduate workers and students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, we understand the importance of a thriving community of public universities where we can teach and research. We know that our students deserve to have access to equitable and well-funded schools starting in kindergarten and on through college. We stand with our broad university family against continued assaults on higher education in Illinois. Last year, Chicago State University was almost forced to shut its doors. This month, Governors State has announced it will raise tuition and cut 22 programs in the fall due to the state budget crisis. Northeastern Illinois University was forced to shut down during their spring break, and nearly all employees took five unpaid furlough days. Hundreds of student employees have lost their jobs at NEIU because of Rauner’s austerity agenda.

We are opposed to Rauner’s attempts to destroy public services and undermine workers’ rights. We demand a fair budget for all Illinois residents and we urge UIC community members to join us for a picket against Rauner’s agenda on Thursday, March 30th at 5 pm at the Chicago Hilton (720 S Michigan Ave). Let’s make our voices heard.

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It’s election time!  If you would like to run for one of the following GEO officer positions, please send your name and two-sentence candidate statement to by Wednesday, April 5th:

–Bargaining Chair: Responsibilities include attending and facilitating contract negotiations, strategizing with the bargaining and organizing teams, and reporting back to membership.

–Communications Chair: Responsibilities include facilitating Communications Committee meetings, and helping to create and maintain GEO’s messaging and online presence.

–Treasurer: Responsibilities include keeping track of all union finances, maintaining budget, and serving as chair for the budget committee.

–Co-President (2 positions): Responsibilities include chairing Steering Committee meetings, working as a liaison to the committees, and being a spokesperson of GEO.

–Grievance Chair: Includes evaluating potential grievances, interviewing grievants and investigating grievances, and working with Stewards Council members to help resolves grievances.

–Secretary: Includes keeping records of meetings, creating and maintaining files of agendas and minutes, and attending Steering Committee meetings.

–Outreach Chair: Includes doing outreach to campus unions and groups and the larger community.

–Organizing Chair: Includes working with Stewards to build membership, organize around member issues, and run contract and issue campaigns.

–Chief Steward: Includes working with Stewards to help facilitate communication about contractual rights, build membership, and organize around issues.

Voting will take place on campus April 11th and 12th on campus. Voting will also take place at the GEO 1o Year Anniversary Event on April 13th at Jak’s Tap from 5-7pm.