1988 – The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) formed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an advocacy organization for graduate employee concerns. One of the early victories for the UIUC-GEO was winning a fee deferment so that grad employees don’t have to pay fees until after their first paycheck.
Early 90′s – Early in UIUC-GEO’s history healthcare became a central concern and we won a dental plan through a public pressure campaign. In 1994 GEO members decided to launch an official union drive. In 1995 members voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
1994-1995 – In the fall of 1994, several teaching assistants in UIC’s English department met on the lawn in front of the Behavioral Sciences Building to discuss their unreasonably heavy workloads. This group began the work of organizing UIC’s graduate employees into a union that would represent all graduate employees in collective bargaining with the university over pay, benefits, terms, and conditions of employment. In the winter of 1995 they hosted a meeting of representatives from several recognized graduate employee unions and from the UIUC-GEO, who by that time had been organizing aggressively for about two years.
1995-1997 – Throughout 1995-96, UIC-GEO continued to make contacts in new departments. We learned in 1997 that the IFT was interested in supporting our campaign also by providing us with both organizing advice and financial support. We followed the UIUC-GEO in affiliating with the IFT. UIC-GEO began recruiting heavily in many departments. We raised the profile of the UIC-GEO on campus and built intellectual and social community among UIC’s graduate employees.
1997-2000 – At UIUC, over 3,200 grad employees signed authorization cards asking the University to hold a union election. In 1997, the UIUC-GEO won an independent union election (run according to Labor Board rules and overseen by the Religious Workers Association) by 64%. A majority of people in each job category (TA, RA, and GA) voted for the union. However, the UIUC administration immediately contested the election and refused to recognize the UIUC-GEO. UIC-GEO dealt with this situation by organizing campaigns to win specific benefits for graduate employees, and we persuaded the university to provide all graduate employees with dental and vision insurance. Graduate employees received dental coverage in fall of 1999 and received vision coverage in fall of 2000.
2000 – UIUC-GEO members occupied the offices of the Board of Trustees with the simple demand that the University administration meet with the UIUC-GEO to resolve this conflict. This event got national and even international media attention and shortly after the occupation the administration agreed to meet with the GEO. The meeting with UIUC Provost Herman produced no real dialogue and the administration still refused to recognize graduate employees as workers.
2001 – The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) was preparing to rule on graduate employees’ collective bargaining rights. They indicated that they would strip union rights from all but 100-200 graduate employees at UIUC. After several years of failed legal and legislative attempts at gaining the right to bargain collectively, the membership voted to pursue a more stringent course of direct action. In Fall 2001 the UIUC-GEO held a 2-day strike of 5 buildings. Almost 400 graduate employees, faculty, and undergraduate supporters came out to picket despite freezing rain. The University remained steadfast in their refusal to compromise.
2002 – In Spring 2002, UIUC-GEO announced plans for a larger and longer strike. In the meantime, UIUC-GEO held a sit-in at Swanlund Administration Building, shutting down several administrative offices. After 12 hours the administration came to offer a compromise that eventually resulted in settlement that gave UIUC TA’s and GA’s collective bargaining rights! In December 2002, GEO won a representation election by a margin of greater than 3 to 1.
2003 – 2004 – While UIUC-GEO began negotiating its first contract, UIC-GEO began organizing heavily across campus, building membership to an all-time high with members across every department and work areausing the card check process. Due to a combination of University challenges and inefficiency, our union was not recognized until Fall Semester 2004, and bargaining did not commence until Spring Semester 2005.
2004 – 2006 — In Fall 2004 we elected a bargaining team and, in January 2005, began negotiation with the University administration to gain improvements to our wages and terms and conditions of work. As negotiations dragged on, hundreds of GEO members rallied to demand better pay and health care, resulting in a contract settlement in July 2006 that won substantial raises and health care subsidies.
2006 – 2008 – With our first contract signed, we focused on making sure it was fully implemented across campus. Some initial major successes included forcing the university to pay people on time who used to wait up to 4 months to get their first paycheck, forcing some departments to actually pay people the negotiated minimum stipends and 3% raises, providing dental appointments from the beginning of employment, and we succeeded in our famous Dragon Dollars grievance where we forced UIC to pay grad employees in real U.S. dollars and never in company script. Separate from contract enforcement, through public pressure campaigns, we succeeded in dramatically reducing the cost of contraceptives by 300%, and we started fighting tuition differential fees with a rally of over 200 grads protesting in the quad and marching to UH. Due to the large protest, we succeeded in getting some TD fees frozen and forcing departments to be honest about the fees by reissuing offer letters. Also, through public pressure we got waivers for newly created fees like the $200 AFMA “elevator” fee, and the $200 Library Technology Fee which are not contractually guaranteed. Most importantly, we vastly increased GEO membership and activism in preparation for bargaining our second contract.
2008-2010Over the past two school years, we were gearing up for bargaining our second contract and then involved in negotiations with university administration. We met with members from all over campus during office visits, focus groups, and membership meetings to build a bargaining platform based on the priorities of grads from across campus. We hosted the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals conference with grad employees traveling in from around the country to help build the graduate employee labor movement. UIC grad volunteers helped campaign for Barack Obama in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana with success in all four states. Additionally UIC GEO spearheaded a campus wide student, community, and worker coalition to bring people together in anticipation of bargaining and fighting other major campus budget cuts. The coalition, named United in Campaign Against Budget Cuts (UIC-ABC) succeeded in nearly freezing tuition (just 1% per year) and in saving nearly 90 UIC clerical staff from being bumped or laid off. We entered negotiations with the university in April of 2009 and concluded them April of 2010. The GEO won a guarantee of tuition waivers, increased stipends, increased health care contributions, guaranteed on-time pay, greater transparency in the hiring process, and increased transparency in the tuition differential process.
2010 and beyond–
In our second contract, which was negotiated between April 2009 and April 2010, UIC-GEO won a guarantee of tuition waivers, increased stipends, increased health care contributions, guaranteed on-time pay, greater transparency in the hiring process, and increased transparency in the tuition differential process. Throughout the entire 2012-13 academic year, GEO negotiated its third contract. The union undertook a strike vote, but didn’t have to strike, because at the last minute the University made concessions on raises and other issues. As part of the new contract, the University started paying a portion of the Campus Care fee as a percentage instead of just a fixed dollar amount. Edgar Bering, former co-chief steward, pointed out that this contract win “seemed subtle at the time,” but since then, the Campus Care fee has climbed rapidly, so the provision having the University pay a percentage has saved graduate student workers a considerable amount of money. As he reflected on the gains of recent contract campaigns, Bering noted that “only at the end of my degree can I really appreciate just how powerful the GEO is and how much it has contributed to my quality of life while a graduate student at UIC.”
GEO negotiated its most recent contract in 2015-16. The University initially offered a 5-year wage freeze and even toyed with the idea of taking away guaranteed tuition waivers. After GEO members started organizing–holding a “work-in” at University Hall, doing a silent protest at the University Board of Trustees meeting, packing the room during bargaining sessions, and making preparations for a strike–the University backed down. GEO won the biggest raise in our union’s history, safeguarded tuition waivers, won a new, paid personal day for all members, and increased anti-discrimination protections.