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.