The struggle to secure the rights of workers and a fair wage are affecting nearly everyone on the UIC campus. Which is why in a local, concrete, sense there is very good reason for union solidarity.

The faculty’s fight to win a fair contract hinges on two key factors. The first is wages. UIC has consistently, over the past 5 years, suppressed wages, electing to spend money on everything but those upon whom the university relies the most: its educators. The faculty’s efforts are an attempt to address inequality and ensure those who make the university function are compensated for their efforts. Secondly, the efforts of the United Faculty (UF) are aimed at improving the shared governance within the university to ensure those who have the closest contact with students have some control over the direction of their departments.

SEIU Local 73, which represents campus workers including service, maintenance, and clerical staff, is engaged in a similar struggle to protect its members’ wages and rights.

These struggles are the GEO’s struggles.  For instance, UF’s fight is very close to our own. If UF succeeds in lifting NTT(Non-Tenure Track) salaries, it will have a direct impact on how much TAs at UIC can reasonably expect to be paid. We are considered part-time employees, and our wages are often based on either the full-time salaries of NTT employees or their per class pay. A massive wage increase for our fellow instructors lays important groundwork for GEO to demand a living wage for graduate employees. Moreover, the GEO is constantly fighting to have its voice heard in a number of forums, including workplace rights, Campus Care, and tuition and fees.

The reasons for showing solidarity go beyond anything happening exclusively on UIC’s campus. If we look at the issues raised by the UF and the GEO as part of the ongoing crisis in American academia, the stakes are even more significant. Solidarity strengthens the rights of workers and slows the erosion of higher education. Many of us accept our low wages and poor working conditions because we won’t be here forever. But, when we graduate, what kind of work will we find? Nationally, 75% of college-level instructors are non-tenured faculty (part- or full-time). Many of us will not achieve tenure. A faculty union that guarantees living wages, benefits, and job security to faculty will be essential for those of us who decide to stay in academia.

We can think of this problem even more broadly still. Since the earliest days of organized labor in the United States, there are two key things for which labor has fought: Wages and control over labor conditions. In every industry, such as the fast food industry where workers continue to fight for the right to unionize, or state and local administrators and public service workers, individuals continue to face these problems. The economy has done labor no favors recently, making it more important than ever to stand by those whose plight is our own.

What enables to the GEO to strive toward a better workplace environment for its members by (for example) advocating for LGBTQ rights and improving working conditions is your participation, your belief that everyone deserves a living wage and the right to work in safe conditions without fear of discrimination. These are the challenges that have rallied individuals to union causes for over a century and these are the challenges we continue to face today. Showing solidarity empowers laborers everywhere – not just those at UIC and not just those in higher education, but all workers.

Solidarity,

GEO

UIC Graduate Employees Organization

The possibility of a walkout by UIC United Faculty may create a difficult situation for graduate workers who have professional relationships with faculty who are their advisors, supervisors, and/or committee members, as well as fellow union members. The following FAQ is meant to inform GEO members how they can support United Faculty while considering their obligations under the GEO contract. Members who would like to discuss their concerns or details about their particular situation should feel free to contact the GEO: staff@uic-geo.net or 312-733-9641.

What will a strike by the United Faculty look like?

A strike can take many forms, but basically, a strike is when workers withhold their labor. This may mean canceled classes, no grades, and no responses to work-related emails. Typically, striking workers will walk picket lines in front of buildings on campus, and rally or march through campus or the streets surrounding it. The picket line is meant to shut down the University. Crossing a picket line can be a stressful situation because it could appear that you are not supporting the workers on strike.  

Am I obligated to support the walkout?

GEO is in solidarity with all unionized workers on campus and off. The GEO submitted a letter to the University in solidarity with the United Faculty. Walkouts are an historically important way for workers to attain important rights and secure a living wage in exchange for their labor. The extent to which each individual union member expresses their solidarity or participates in labor actions is a matter of individual conscience.

What does the GEO contract stipulate about my support of the walkout?

As stipulated by law, the GEO has a “No Strike” clause in its contract. The GEO contract states that members covered by the contract may not participate in a sympathy strike, i.e. withhold their labor, during the term of our agreement with the University. In the advent of a walkout or strike by United Faculty, grad workers may not withhold their labor (e.g. cancel class, not show up for a scheduled shift, etc). However, we can support faculty in other ways. Our contract allows us to support the faculty on our own time. GEO members have the right to participate in peaceful, legal demonstrations when we are not on the clock.

A faculty member in my department told me that I don’t have to cross the picket line as long as I perform my work duties off campus. What does that mean for me?

Before making any decisions, you should contact the union or look to the union for guidance. Faculty members cannot guarantee that grad workers will not face consequences for appearing to withhold their labor from the University. The GEO is committed to its members and representing their best interests. It is important to keep in mind that contracts do not exist in a vacuum–the meaning of contract language is based on mutual understanding between the University and union, as well as precedent and in case law. For this reason, the GEO and its lawyers are better suited to help their members understand their contract and responsibilities.

What will happen if my actions are interpreted as violating the GEO contract’s “No Strike” clause?

A violation of the “No Strike” clause may result in termination from your assistantship. Each GEO member needs to decide for themselves if they will risk termination from their assistantship. Representation by the GEO and its lawyers is will be provided to GEO members who request it (and we have the best labor lawyers!). However, immediate reinstatement of assistantships and recuperation of lost wages is not guaranteed.

If my supervisor is supportive of the walkout and cancels a class for which I am a TA, what should I do?

It can be very encouraging to work with a supervisor that is supportive of workers’ rights. If your supervisor cancels the class for which you are a TA, then you do not have to show up for the cancelled class. However, any discussion sections, grading, office hours, emails, or other duties that you have in relation to your TAship will still stand and will need to be completed.

If my supervisor is supportive of the walkout and instructs me not to come in for a scheduled shift for my GAship, what should I do?

Contact the union for more advice about your specific situation: geo@uic-geo.net.

My advisor/supervisor does not support the walkout: how should I handle it?

For most TAs and GAs, your supervisor is the main person who oversees and can report on whether or not you complete your work. For this reason, you should be sure to complete all duties as assigned. If you do not want to cross the picket line but fear your decision will prevent you from completing your TA or GA duties as assigned or otherwise negatively impact your assistantship, contact the union for advice: geo@uic-geo.net.

Can I participate in the “student walkout” that students are discussing in conjunction with UIC United Faculty’s potential strike? 

GEO members are in a unique position because they hold student and employee status simultaneously. The University has a tendency to evoke one status or the other as it suits their purposes. GEO members may participate in the “student walkout” in their capacity as students (i.e. skip classes in which they are enrolled as a student). The consequences, if any, will be academic. However, you may not withhold your labor as a TA or GA with the excuse that you are a student. When you are working for the University, you are an employee and beholden to the union contract.

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