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.

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