By: Gina Gemmel
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
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.
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
The history of the labor movement is not something that is typically taught in history courses in the US anymore, at least not those general courses that most of us are required to take. As a result, there is a lot of misinformation about what unions are and what they do. In response, we have developed a series of posts that will explain what exactly a union is and what it is not. This first post will focus on what makes a graduate employee union different from any other campus organization that you might join during your time at UIC.
There are a lot of organizations on UIC’s campus that graduate students can take part in, including some that are political in nature. These organizations do a lot of excellent work, and the purpose of this post is not to disparage them; UIC-GEO works in solidarity with many groups all over campus to try to effect changes that will have a positive impact for the UIC community. However, it is important to understand the difference between what these organizations do and what the GEO does.
The GEO is the sole bargaining agent for graduate employees at UIC. This means that members of the GEO negotiate a contract with representatives of the university, and that this contract governs our employment here. Because the GEO has legal standing as the bargaining agent for graduate employees, the agreements we reach during contract negotiations with the university are binding. This means that involvement with the GEO provides a unique opportunity to compel the university to make decisions that will ensure our fair treatment.
Our relationship to the university is not advisory, which means that the university cannot simply take the demands we present during contract negotiations under advisement and then make a decision without our involvement. The GEO is the only organization that has this power. There is no other, more effective way for graduate employees to make their voices heard and to demand change.
The GEO also enforces the contract that has been negotiated. This means that if your supervisor is making you work more hours than the contract allows, if you are being treated unfairly, or if you are not being paid properly, the GEO can file a grievance to compel the university to follow the contract. The GEO, as a labor union, has legal standing that requires the university to listen, to answer, and to take action.
In the coming weeks, you will see posts considering who decides the direction of the GEO, how we compel the university to agree to our demands, and why unions are so important.
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.