Dear colleagues at UIC,

Our names are Daniel Vergara and Alicia Luque and we are PhD students at UIC. We are writing this post with the hope that we can raise awareness about the significant increase in the International Student Fee that will be applied to us by the Office of International Students (OIS) for the 2015-2016 academic year. So far, international students at UIC have had to pay an amount of $80 per semester for the services that the OIS provides to international students. About two months ago, the OIS sent out an e-mail stating that due to incoming budget cuts, the office is going to raise the international student fee to $130 per semester for a total of $260 per year. Coincidentally, this e-mail was sent before the Dean notified all university staff, faculty and students that budget negotiations were still ongoing and it was not yet clear which official entities at UIC were going to be affected by these budget cuts.

The OIS claims that the increase in the fee is to improve the services provided at their office but they will not provide us with any details as to how this money will be used. $260 a year might not seem much, but as international graduate workers who earn limited wages and are not allowed to work off-campus, we could better use this money to travel to conferences, conduct research, or simply pay rent. As international workers we visit the OIS for visa-related issues, but we don’t believe that those services are sufficient to justify the fee increase. UIC is an institution that takes pride in being diverse and multicultural, and that’s why this fee increase is an embarrassment to the OIS and to what UIC stands for. We came to UIC because it was a diverse institution that cherished and valued international students, but sadly we don’t feel that way anymore. During these past two months, we have been organizing to fight this fee increase but we need YOU. We need your support. Whether or not you are an international worker, this is a clear case of DISCRIMINATION and it should not be ignored. Please show us your support by reposting this, raising awareness, coming to our meetings, or even talking to your international colleagues about the fee increase. This fee needs to STOP!

Our next meeting will be Monday, August 10th at 5 p.m. at the UIC GEO office (815 W. Van Buren, Suite 203). Join us!

Sincerely,

Daniel Vergara and Alicia Luque

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 Colin Smalley

One of the first things I had to do when I got my admission letter to a graduate program at UIC was to figure out if my wife and I could afford for me to go to grad school.  I’m sure almost all of my colleagues have been in this situation.

For me, as long as I continued to work part-time in addition to all my grad school duties, I would be able to pull it off.  In my particular situation, my income is the family income.  Therefore, being able to work outside UIC in addition to holding an assistantship is crucial to being able to continue my graduate studies.  I certainly do not think I’m alone in this.

My partner and I certainly do not live extravagantly; for most of my first year of grad school, we lived in an apartment that was about the same size as my freshman dorm room in undergrad.   We try to keep our costs down however we can.  This is grad school – we expected to have tight budgets.

However, as this graphic shows, even the necessities (rent, medical costs, food costs, and the fees that I had to pay to UIC to attend classes) overwhelmed what I was bringing home from my teaching job at UIC.  Factor in utilities and incidental expenses (not included in the graphic), and there’s only one conclusion: I had to work off campus.

I was lucky to land a part-time job in my field that is helping to prepare me for after I graduate.  My employer understands the nature of school, and is flexible with me with scheduling.  Many of my colleagues find themselves in less advantageous arrangements, and balancing this outside work is very difficult.

For all of us – balancing coursework, our TA or RA duties, and our research with outside employment is unquestionably difficult.  This has led to many departments discouraging grad students from taking outside jobs.  However, as my chart shows – for some of us, there is no option.  This is why we need a contract, and need it now.

There are three major issues here for me:

First, the uncertainty of not having a contract makes the planning that I have to do to balance all of this even more difficult.

Second, a new contract needs to have stronger protections for students that need to work off-campus.

Finally, a new contract needs to recognize that UIC does not pay its graduate employees enough to live in the city where the campus exists.

The bottom line is that the University will go on and on about being a world-class institution, but cannot do so if many graduate employees cannot afford to get a graduate education.  This is the trend of the status quo – it is up to us to bring about the necessary changes.

By: Aleks Zarnitsyn

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by guest blogger Aleks Zarnitsyn of UIC’s Philosophy program. Aleks examines our current contract to discover what guarantees it secures for grad employees who are also parents, and assesses some of our options for improving working conditions for grad employee moms and dads. This post is a follow-up to Molly McGown’s post about her experiences as a grad employee mother.

Grad students are human, for the most part. Despite various warning, humans, including grad students, procreate.

What parental rights does the GEO contract guarantee?

Your Bare Minimum: two weeks of parental leave without loss of pay immediately following the birth of a child.

This bare minimum does not apply to you if you have not held an active appointment for at least 6 months. Suppose you give birth in during the finals week of your first semester of graduate school. You are not entitled to the bare minimum. Suppose you have a baby in January and you are just starting your second semester of grad school. You are still not entitled to the bare minimum! Assuming that regular appointments start in the middle of August, you are not eligible until mid-February. (Piece of advice: time it very well!)

Only TWO weeks, folks! It should be obvious YOUR and YOUR CHILD’S health requires MORE time. (If you are not convinced, read up on what the first two weeks of maternity are like, or talk to any mother.)

What to do:

1.    Do not have children in grad school. (This option is not on the table when negotiating the next contract. It simply avoids the discussion of the University’s responsibilities to its employees who have children.)

2.    Demand that the 6-month active appointment requirement for parental leave be waived. (The restriction does not make sense in our context and should be eliminated.)

3.    Advocate better maternity leave next time we negotiate our contract, a process which will begin in 2011-12 school year.

Grads at UIUC, through our sister union, UIUC GEO, negotiated a 6-week “parental accommodation” period that is more flexible. Graduate employees at UIUC are entitled to a combination of the 2-week paid bare minimum, combined with 2-week paid sick leave, combined with 2-week unpaid leave approved upon request. See details of their contract here: http://www.uigeo.org/contract/

That is an improvement over your bare minimum, but it could be even better. UIC is subject to the Federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. It provides employees with 12 weeks unpaid leave for each consecutive 12-month period for which eligibility criteria have been met. Eligible individuals are those who have been employed by the University for at least 12 months and who have performed at least 1,250 hours of service during the previous 12-month period.  (Source) If you are on a 50% appointment, you are unlikely to meet the hourly requirement to take advantage of FMLA. But the University could agree to extend FMLA-type benefits to grads by waiving the eligibility requirements. Even supposing we could get that, FMLA provides for UNPAID leave.

A further option is to bargain for paid 12-weeks leave. Obviously, the government recognizes that having maternity leave is a matter of social justice. We can begin to make sure that the university acknowledge this as such.

What about parental benefits beyond leave?

Suppose you have a child despite the warnings about the difficulties. During this difficult time, your contract guarantees the full coverage of the health service fee and full access to Family Medicine Center, Wellness Center, The Counseling Center, The Pharmacy Services, which is currently $100 per semester, and which is waived by the GEO contract. This fee waiver covers basic health services and visits to the Family Medicine Center. Most graduate employees also purchase the CampusCare health benefit as well, at a cost of $276 per semester (the premium is $401 per semester, but last year, GEO won a $125 per semester subsidy for the premium).

But this coverage is only for the student. Enrolled students may sign their children up for CampusCare, but the university provides no subsidy for the additional $538 per semester CampusCare fee. And CampusCare does not pro-rate its premiumx, so even if your child is born during the last week of the semester, you are liable for the entire $538 CampusCare premium.

Graduate employees seeking to cover themselves and one child for one semester can expect to pay $814 in health insurance premiums. The university contributes only $225 per semester in the spring and fall semester to graduate employee health insurance costs, and contributes $0 in the summer.

What other benefits does UIC provide for graduate employees who are parents?

There are some rooms on-campus, designated for young mothers, which is better than nothing, if you have to bring your child to school.

If your child is two years and nine months old, you use UIC’s Children’s Center. (http://www.uic.edu/depts/children/) The current fee range is 86 to 208 dollars per week, and “fees are on a sliding scale based upon each family’s gross income before taxes and other financial resources, such as child support, financial aid, savings, assistance by other family members, incomes from rental property, etc.” (source)

Even at the current lowest rate, the center may cost you 350 dollars a month, which is a very substantial part of your graduate employee income. What can we do?

The university could agree to sponsor assistants’ children at a lower rate, or at no cost. The university could agree to put the limit on the sliding of the scale for the assistants. GEO has in the past asked an assistant’s childcare fee not exceed 5% of the assistant’s salary, but the university has so far not agreed to this.

Conclusion:
At the very least, we should bargain for extending the parental leave for ALL graduate students to paid 6 weeks and possibly to unpaid 12 weeks. Additionally, we should try to secure the limit on the sliding scale for the assistants using the UIC Children’s Center.

These are small concessions to ask from the administration that depends on our work. This work cannot be done at the expense of the health of the families of the assistants. There should be little financial incentive for the university to resist such changes, primarily because very few grad students decide to have children while in graduate school. Moreover, the university community will only benefit by securing these obvious rights for its employees.

Luckily, graduate employees at UIC are represented by a union. This means that we have a binding contract with the university that details the terms and conditions of our employment, but also that our contract is only as good as we make it.

On September 27, GEO will hold its first-ever Teach-In. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and professor of English at UIUC, will provide a keynote – but the event is really about our union and our work here in Chicago. To win the benefits we deserve, such as better benefits for parents, GEO members must work together. On September 27, we will get together to begin to decide how we can make our third contract the best one yet – what do we want? – how can we get it? – what are we willing to do? I hope to see you there.

 

By: Molly McGown

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by guest blogger Molly McGown of UIC’s Anthropology program. Molly’s post is the first in a “What It’s Like” series we will be running in which members describe their experiences. Molly identifies some of the ways that graduate programs fail to adequately accommodate parents in our roles as students. Her thoughts dovetail nicely with this recent post from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Singing the Grad School Baby Blues.” Look for our upcoming post in which we’ll explore some of the guarantees that our contract secures for parents who are grad employees, and we’ll think about ways that those guarantees could be improved.

You may call it oversensitivity or mother’s guilt. You may call it whatever you want, but grad school is set up in such a way that it is discriminatory. Despite the fact that your liberal department has expressed that they “accommodate” students-as-parents, what they really mean is that as long as your family doesn’t come before your schoolwork, they will smile at your child and tolerate him/her spending a few days a semester in your office.

As I began grad school, I looked at my schedule. I had two long days of core courses, but it looked like the rest of the week was free. That “free” time soon filled up with teaching responsibilities, so that I was at school from 9 to 5 about 5 days a week. My one-year old was breastfed. At least, that was true when I was home, but it became less and less possible as the responsibilities piled on. I couldn’t pump. I had spaces offered up for pumping, but on class days, my classmates and I were in the same classroom from 10 to 4. We were supposed to have 10 minutes between classes, but they always went over. I brought a pump every day, but it hardly went to use. When would it have been appropriate for me to leave and pump? If I left class at the specified time, I would have had 10 minutes to get set up, relax, and pump. Relax. “Hey, guys, I’ve got to slip out for a bit.” I’m not a particularly modest gal, but neither did I want to draw attention to the fact that I was going to attach a ridiculous plastic contraption to my milky parts. With that start, I would shut myself in an unfamiliar room and skip lunch in order to relax, all the while thinking about what I might be missing or how I would be judged for my “progress” in the course. Re-freaking-lax.

As you all know, schoolwork follows you home. Since becoming a grad student, I probably have spent 30-something hours at school, away from my son, and another 80-something at home with him. Many of those 80-something are spent supervising but mostly ignoring him while I read, write, and clean. I am barely able to keep up on my coursework. If I take a day off for the museum or a park day, I have to skimp on meals or sleep to make up that time. I have to pay for babysitters any time there is a conference or defense that I’m expected to be at, and this money comes from my measly stipend. Of course it was my choice to have a baby before grad school, but I wonder if the expectations of grad students are simply too high to begin with.

By: Gina Gemmel

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

Lately, it seems that people are talking about “choice” a lot. Choice, some claim, is the basis of capitalism, and it’s what protects people in a capitalist system. Consumers can choose to buy a different product if they feel the one they’re currently buying it overpriced or lacks quality. Consumers can choose another service provider if they feel they are not receiving the best customer service. And employees can choose another job if they think their employer is not treating them fairly or paying them fairly. Choice is definitely a good thing, but the idea that people can simply choose another product, service provider, or job fails to recognize that it’s simply not that easy in most cases. What do we do when none of our options are good?

When it comes to employment, a lack of good options is a reality for many, many workers. Sometimes industries contract, leaving a group of workers with an unmarketable set of skills. Sometimes people are stuck in an area where there aren’t a lot of jobs, and they don’t have the money or resources to pick up and move to a new area. Sometimes the unemployment rate is high, making it difficult to find jobs in general. In these situations, workers who are able to find jobs often find themselves being exploited because they are in high supply, but there is little demand for workers. Employers may feel free to offer low wages and poor working conditions because they know that workers will accept them out of necessity, having nowhere else to go for a better working situation.

So how do workers protect themselves from such situations? You guessed it: unions. Unions are the only way that employees have to directly influence their employers in order to ensure their fair pay and fair treatment. Unions can achieve this direct influence because they sit down at the bargaining table with the employer and set the terms of employment in the form of a contract. That contract is legally binding, so employers have to follow it. Unions are effective because they present workers with a way to collectively demand better treatment from employers. The options for securing a better workplace are these: Either trust in your employer to provide a good workplace out of the kindness of his or her heart, or guarantee that your employer will provide good working conditions because they know that all of their employees will take action to demand them if they don’t.

Next week, look for my post on why these issues are particularly relevant for graduate employees.

By Gina Gemmel

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

Sometimes people feel suspicious about the decision unions make. They’re not sure how unions come to their decisions, and they worry that the union will negotiate working conditions for them that are unfair. While it’s true that there have been instances where certain leaders have co-opted unions for their own gain and have little regard for workers, most unions have the well-being of their workers in mind. How do I know this? Because union leadership is comprised of workers.

We all know that a union is made up of workers, but we may not be aware of who makes up union leadership or who makes decisions for the union. The UIC-GEO is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), so do they make the decisions? The answer is no. The GEO affiliates with these organizations to have greater solidarity with other workers who share our concerns. We will be publishing a post in the coming weeks with more information on why exactly we affiliate with larger organizations, but for now, the important thing is that the AFT and IFT don’t dictate the decisions our local union makes about working conditions.

So who does make the decisions? In the GEO, the decision-makers are your fellow graduate students who work as TAs, GAs, and RAs. The GEO has a Steering Committee comprised of graduate employees, and that Steering Committee takes into account the opinions of grad employees that we talk to on a regular basis, as well as the feedback of our Stewards Council. The Stewards Council is made up of grad employees from across the various departments at UIC, and their job is to stay informed on GEO issues and communicate with other students in their department about those issues, as well as listening to the concerns of the fellow students and communicating those to the rest of the GEO leadership. All of the people on the Steering Committee and Stewards Council are volunteers and do not receive any compensation for what they do. They do the work of the union because they are concerned about workers and more specifically, working conditions at UIC. Steering Committee members are elected once yearly, but grad employees are free to join the Stewards Council at any time. In addition to these two official bodies, the GEO also has committees devoted to particular issues that are open to all members to join at any time.

So the next time you are wondering how or why the GEO made a certain decision, be aware that the decision-making process belongs to you just as much as it does the “leaders” of the GEO. We strive at all times to be as open as possible; we want to address the concerns that our members bring to us, and we want to address them in the best possible way for our members. The best way for us to do this is to have a more involved membership. The Steering Committee makes decisions when necessary, but we hope that we will more often simply enact the will of an involved membership. If there is an issue that you feel strongly about that relates to your employment at UIC, let us know and we would be happy to make you a part of the decision-making process on that issue! For example, right now, we have a CampusCare Committee that has been meeting with the administration to make sure that grads have a say in any changes that are made to the CampusCare agreement. The CampusCare Committee, the committee that organizes this blog and its associated Teach-In (coming to a UIC venue near you in September and featuring Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP!!!), or the GA Tax Waiver Bargaining Team are all open to any grad employee. In addition, we currently taking nominations for next year’s Steering Committee members, and elections will be held on April 20th. Nominating yourself or someone you believe in for a position and voting for next year’s leaders is a concrete way that you can begin to take part in your union’s decision-making process.