Being a Department Steward for the GEO presents a unique set of tensions and challenges. On the one hand, stewards are tasked with collecting and reporting on the various concerns of colleagues in the department. Simultaneously, however, stewards also impart critical information in the other direction—namely, from the GEO leadership to the general membership in individual departments. My own department (Anthropology) has a generally supportive disposition towards the GEO. We have a history of strong attendance at meetings, rallies, and GEO-sponsored social activities. This support, however, is naturally counter-balanced and mitigated by the pressured demands of graduate school. This particular tension has led me to view my stewardship position as one primarily concerned with facilitation rather than political proselytizing.

When it came to my attention that the GEO’s database did not have listed many colleagues I was sure were interested in being card-signing members of the union, I drafted the following letter politely requesting that the recipients fill out a new yellow membership card. Below is a slightly edited version of that letter:

Dear _______________,
If you are receiving this message, it means that the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) does not have your membership information in their database. Although many of you support the union, GEO does not currently have a record of you having signed the card. If you have not signed a card, but are interested in becoming an active member, we would really like to have you. If you have filled out a card previously, I apologize for the inconvenience. Nevertheless, please take the time to fill out the yellow membership card I have enclosed, even if you have already done this before. These cards give you a voice in the union, so you are not accepting additional responsibilities by filling them out. The union represents you whether you support it or not; these cards simply ensure that you can vote and make your opinions heard.

This should be a quick and easy process, so please take a few minutes and fill this out at your earliest convenience. When you have completed the card, please return it to me ASAP. In person, on my desk, or in my mailbox are all fine. Thanks, and please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. I am happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have about becoming a card-signing member of GEO.

Sincerely,

Ben Linder
Graduate Employee Organization
Department Steward for Anthropology

I placed this letter in the recipients’ office mailboxes. While many (most?) of my anthropologist colleagues harbor generally union-friendly attitudes, the same can certainly not be said for all departments at UIC. Stewards in other departments face a different set of challenges, and these might be better met with more proactive organizing efforts. However, for many of us, stewards must carefully choose their battles. Many of our departmental colleagues are highly engaged and highly informed, though not always supportive of GEO. For this reason, antagonistic rhetoric aimed more at fashioning support through antagonism has limited value. Despite my own enthusiasm for the GEO, I must actively avoid the temptation to over-saturate the inboxes of my friends and colleagues. Many humanities and social science departments (such as Anthropology) do not represent the frontier of our organizing efforts; rather, it represents a standing army of supportive GEO members. My own efforts aim to grease the wheels of participation. Stewards in similar situations can write letters like this to make participation in union proceedings easier. Where support already exists, the steward’s role is primarily one of constant maintenance. Where support does not exist, reaching out to colleagues by direct, personalized contact will work.

When I left the above letter in my colleagues’ mailboxes, I enclosed a yellow card with personalized fields (Name, Department, etc.) already filled in. In addition to making this easier on the recipient, it simultaneously gives the (accurate) impression that I put some amount of time and effort into this mini-campaign. These are, after all, friends and colleagues. They respect personal outreach more than impersonal listserv emails.

Within a couple of days of initiating this strategy, over half of the recipients returned completed cards. Many more continued to trickle in over the course of the next two weeks. In the GEO’s continued outreach efforts, the union wants to avoid mass emails in favor of personalized forms of communication. Keeping the big picture in mind—social justice, fair contracts, safe workplaces, public universities, etc.—is crucial. But most of my time as steward is not spent discussing the big picture. The day-to-day efforts of stewards do not always require appeals to such lofty ideals. Sometimes, participation is about the signature on the yellow card. By tailoring our efforts in this way, I’m confident that we can engender the continued support of department – this is certainly the case for Anthropology . This is critical as another round of contract negotiations looms just over the horizon. When the negotiations resume, Anthropology will be there to provide input and support. By undertaking a few concerted but relatively simple tasks, we can incorporate more of our members’ voices. We would encourage interested members to take moment to send out a similar letter to the one above to their colleagues.

Tuition Differentials: Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Tuition Differential (TD)?

Tuition differentials are not tuition at all; they are a fee charged to undergraduate and graduate students in addition to the base tuition rate. TDs are implemented according to degree program. TDs are not covered by tuition waivers.

Why do only some departments have tuition differentials?

A TD can be proposed by a College Dean, Department Chair or Director of Graduate Studies, and is approved by the College Dean and Board of Trustees. In the proposal, the department must justify the TD with examples of why it costs more to deliver the program and how the funds will be used.

How do departments justify implementing TDs?

The main argument for TDs is to supplement high-cost programs, such as programs that require expensive lab equipment.

So then why do students in non-lab programs like Art History or Business pay a TD?

The TDs implemented in several degree programs where no apparent special costs are associated with the implementation of the program. Often TDs are simply used to pay faculty and fill-in budget gaps for day-to-day operations. Increasing fees to sustain basic operating budgets creates a disproportionate burden on graduate students.

What are these TDs used for?

The university does not provide information as to how the TDs are used. Some departments, such as CUPPA and Business, have disclosed that they use the money for their regular instructional budgets and general operating expenses.

Do TDs increase?

Yes. The average increase in TDs from the 2012-13 to the 2013-14 school year was $500.

Are continuing students subject to increases in TDs?

Yes. Students have to pay the TD that is charged that year even if they initially enrolled when the TD was lower.

Isn’t it a bad time to abolish TDs during a state budget crisis?

The State of Illinois is in the middle of a long budget crisis and has withheld promised funds to many state agencies including UIC. Budget cuts are a reality and need to be addressed by the state legislature. We need to demand that UIC gets the funding it needs to operate from the state instead of from its students. Additionally, UIC has around $300 million in unrestricted funds that could be used to address budget shortfalls in certain departments. Public institutions like UIC were established to provide affordable education to all. Students today are graduating with more than twice the debt that students 20 years ago had, and with fewer job opportunities available. Earning an advanced degree is not a guarantee for future success, making it harder to justify taking on substantial debt.

Is there a venue to address our concerns about TDs?

Unlike all other fees, concerns about TDs do not go before the Campus Fee Committee. TDs are unique because only the Board of Trustees have the authority to approve or revoke them.

How do I get involved with the GEO to address this issue?

The GEO is continually organizing around this issue. You can get involved by contacting the GEO (geo@uic-geo.net) and addressing the existence of Tuition Differentials within your own department, or, if your home department has not yet implemented a TD, help to organize in departments where one currently exists.

I am 6th year PhD student in the department of English at UIC. I work the equivalent of two full-time
jobs. But I can’t make ends meet.

When I began my PhD work here, I had already obtained a master’s degree – so I was no stranger to the rigors of academic work. It came as no surprise when a colleague of mine calculated that based upon the average reading load per semester and the average number of minutes it takes to read a page of academic prose, just the act of reading in our program was a 40/week job (38.8 hours/week of assigned reading). I would expect no less of graduate school.

In addition to this work, however, as a condition of my enrollment, I was also teaching 2 sections of composition. As comp is required for all UIC undergraduates, these courses usually fill to max capacity – 23 students. The First-Year Writing Program requires that these students complete four writing projects totaling 20 pages of finished work by the end of the semester. Each writing project must go through at least two drafts. Putting my rusty math skills to use: 2 x 23 x 20 x 2 = 1,840 pages of
freshman writing to be read, evaluated, and constructively commented upon per semester, in addition to
my 40 hours a week of assigned reading. I haven’t even factored in yet the time spent in the classroom
(both attending class and teaching it); working on, writing my own research; and applying for grants or
to conferences and publications. I won’t even mention time for pesky things like friends, family, and
exercise.

But again, I didn’t enter academia in order to pursue a life of leisure. Quite the contrary, my teaching
has been a huge source of fulfillment for me, and has informed my scholarship in ways I could never
have predicted. My problem is not that I have to work hard. My problem is that, while it ought to be
clear that I am working the equivalent of two full-time jobs, I still can’t make ends meet.

According to the cost of living calculator on UIC’s Financial Aid webpage, the cost of living in
Chicago for 2012-2013 is $17, 958. (It is worth mentioning that many other independent assessments
set this figure significantly higher.) Currently, I am paid $15, 500. Every year I am forced to choose
between taking on outside work (with the effect of slowing down my progress toward degree, and
extending my indentured servitude), or taking out loans and falling further into debt. Besides the
situation being untenable, it is unconscionable of UIC to tell its graduate students (who, by the way,
teach over one third of all undergraduate students) that despite all the hard work they do, they don’t
deserve a living wage. UIC calls itself a world class university. But, when it comes to employee
compensation, benefits, and working conditions, UIC is anything but world class.

Kevin Carey

Should the university provide affordable infant and child care for students and faculty? This is precisely the question the Office of the Provost asked in 2007 when it commissioned a study to determine the child care needs of UIC students and faculty. At first glance, it may not seem so obvious that a lack of infant and child care options on campus has costs for us all. But, these costs are real, and they come in many forms, from losses in productivity to missed classes and cancelled office hours. This means students get short changed, graduate students take a longer time to finish their degrees, and faculty make less of a contribution to the university.

For graduate students like me with small children at home, things look even bleaker. A lack of child care options means taking on a second job and missing out on department activities. I know, because over the last few years, I’ve had to do both. For the first two years of my son’s life, in an effort to save money, my partner worked full-time and I stayed home three days a week with our son. On days when I would teach, we hired a babysitter; I returned home in the afternoons immediately after I finished teaching, in order to take care of our boy. I also took on adjunct work, teaching evening classes at local university to make extra money. Needless to say, I made almost no progress toward my degree during those years, and I was rarely able to fulfill my teaching duties in the way I believed the job required. There were many times during these years when I contemplated giving up on my degree and staying home full-time with our kids.

Right now I have two children who need care during the day. For my son, who just turned three, we pay $200 a week to have him in a Montessori program near our home. Granted, there are other, cheaper options, like in-home daycares, but they are marginally cheaper (about $25 less per week) and provide less structure and fewer activities for kids.  For our infant son, we pay a student in our neighborhood to watch and care for him in our home for most of the week. This costs us another $400 per week. If my partner didn’t work full time, too, there’s absolutely no way we could pay for the care of our children on my university wages. And, if we didn’t pay for care, there’s absolutely no way we could both have careers. In other words, without having two incomes it would be impossible to raise our children in Chicago on a TA salary.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not asking the university to raise my kids or provide me with free child care so that I can be a student and my partner can work. What I’m asking for is an affordable on-campus option that’s good for employees, students, and our children. With the number of education, nursing, and social work programs at UIC, it seem entirely possible to provide world class child-care options while also educating the next generation of educators, nurses, and social workers.

And, it appears that I’m not alone when it comes to facing these difficult choices between quality child care and professional obligations. According to UIC’s Ad Hoc Committee on Infant and Child Care, 40 percent of graduate students reported taking an additional job in order to pay for child care costs, while 77 percent reported missing out on opportunities to participate in their departments. This means a degraded academic culture and lost opportunities for all.

According to the same 2007 report mentioned above, providing infant and child care at UIC would “improve recruitment and retention, it would also benefit from increased productivity and a reduction of time lost due to faculty and staff absences related to child-care issues.” Not to mention lower stress levels for 80 percent of graduate students and 70 percent of faculty with infants or small children.

The university’s own report, then, identified the costs of not having affordable infant and child care options available on campus. This same 2007 report made specific recommendations to the Office of the Provost to radically expand infant and child care options at UIC. So, what’s happened? In short, nothing.

To be fair, though, UIC does offer on-campus child care for the children of employees and students—as long as the children are at least two years nine months and fully potty trained and you can afford the cost (about $200 per week for most employees and on a sliding scale for students). On the face of it, we might think this isn’t such a bad deal. After all, there’s at least an on campus option for child care, right? The question, however, for employees like me, is what to do for the first two years and nine months of my child’s life. Is it possible to raise your children and still pursue a professional degree? Let’s just say that it would be far more possible for far more people, if all UIC employees were paid a living wage and if UIC provided affordable care options for all employees and students who need it.

So, what actually happens now that my son has turned the requisite two years and nine months and finally qualifies for the UIC on-camps care? It turns out that there’s a waiting list to get in to the on-campus program. UIC’s child care facility can only accommodate 96 children, while back in 2007 the report noted that demand for child care was topping 400. Where might we put the additional 304 infants and toddlers who can’t be enrolled in our on-campus child care center? One idea: How about the Office of the Provost?

-Brian Charest, TA in the Department of English

***All statistics quoted above are from the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Infant Care at UIC: http://www.uic.edu/depts/oaa/childcare.html

By Gina Gemmel

Part 2 of a multi-part series

This is part two of a series explaining what a union is.  For the first post, click here. 

With all the talk of austerity going around these days, there are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable making demands of their employers.  We may think that we are being greedy if we demand better pay, especially when so many others are suffering.  Today’s post will explain why such a philosophy is bad for workers in general.  First of all, the gains that union members are able to make are not just for unionized employees.  The 8 hour day/40 hour work week, for example, began as a demand of labor unions, but is now standard practice and required by law for all workers.  For a more concrete example, at UIC, we have three classifications of employees, two of which are in our bargaining unit (TAs and GAs), and one of which is not (RAs). The employees not in the bargaining unit have traditionally been extended most of the benefits of the contract that the bargaining unit negotiates. It would be better for RAs to be in the bargaining unit so they had full protection through grievance processes, but for now, their standard of working conditions has been improved because of a union to which they do not belong (the reason RAs aren’t in the BU is because of an IL law that prohibits them from being in it). Think of how bad UIC would look if they didn’t extend those benefits to the workers not in the bargaining unit who are doing very similar work to those who are in it. The union has created a situation that makes it difficult for the employer to mistreat those employees, even though they could legally.

Second, people seem to think of unions as some sort of exclusive entity that is trying to snatch up all the resources and leave everyone else behind. But in reality, good unions have solidarity with all workers as their core value. We don’t want to get some benefit that causes other workers to go without, and if an employer tried to take away something from other employers because our union negotiated a contract with good benefits, we would support those other workers in unionizing and protesting their unfair treatment. A union’s goal is to use collective action to better working conditions for people who don’t have the power to better their conditions individually. If an employer decides to take something away from other employees as a result of the union’s work, that is the employer’s decision. If I feel like my working conditions have been negatively impacted because my employer apportioned more resources for some employees who have a union than for me, the solution is take the issue up with my employer since that’s the entity that made the decision. It would get me nowhere and would not make sense to take the issue up with the union members who have successfully guaranteed their rights (although this is precisely the thing that would benefit employers most, because if we’re busy being at each other’s throats, we won’t demand accountability from the people who are really responsible).  And the best way to take up an issue with an employer is to do it with other like-minded co-workers at your side. The employer can fire one person demanding rights, but they can’t fire the entire workforce. And that right there is why unions are necessary, and why they are capable of achieving results.

By: Gina Gemmel

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts on what exactly a union is and how a healthy, active union can benefit workers.  But today I want to start by discussing the concept of a “worker.”

Is a graduate employee a worker?  Most graduate students who hold assistantships, whether they work in an office, a classroom, or doing research, consider themselves to be primarily students.  This might be because some grads see themselves more as apprentices than employees, because we associate being an employee with a more structured, 9-5 type of job, or because we are often encouraged by our departments to give most of our attention to our studies.  Whatever the reason, one of the first hurdles to overcome in discussing unions with graduate employees is simply convincing us that we are workers who could benefit from a union.

We are definitely workers, though.  We provide essential services, without which UIC would not be able to operate.  Whether we do research in labs, teach students in classrooms, or work in an office, the university could not keep functioning without the almost 1,400 graduate employees who do work every day.  As an organization, UIC could not keep operations running without the hard work of Graduate Assistants in offices all over campus.  UIC could not sustain its status a research university without Research Assistants performing experiments and supporting the work of faculty members*.  And of course, without Teaching Assistants in classrooms, UIC could not fulfill its mission of educating students.  All of these roles are clearly vital, and they are all roles for which we receive a compensation, which is another critical indicator that we are, in fact, workers.

Graduate students with assistantships perform all of this vital work, and as a result the university is able to continue running.  Acknowledging the work we perform as work has become an important issue in recent years as universities have shifted their labor force toward the contingent end of the spectrum.  According to the US Department of Education, only 27% of instructors were full-time, tenure-track teachers*.  The remaining 73% of instructors were contingent workers, including graduate students and adjuncts.  Not only are we workers; we are doing the work that used to be done by full-time, higher-paid workers – you know, those people we all traditionally consider to be workers!

I will be writing more on this topic in the coming weeks, but the preceding information should not only illustrate why what we do as graduate employees is work, but also why we need to raise our collective voice to influence the direction the university is headed in.  We make up a significant portion of the university workforce, and as such, we should have a say in our own working conditions and the operations of the university.  Unionization is the best way to achieve these things.

*Although the GEO believes that Research Assistants are workers, there is currently a law in IL preventing them from being a part of the bargaining unit of a union.  The GEO would like to see this law overturned in the future so that RAs could take advantage of all the benefits guaranteed to TAs and GAs through the GEO contract.

*http://aft.org/issues/highered/acadstaffing.cfm