Wednesday, November 11, 2009

UI teaching, research assistants prepared to strike

URBANA – The University of Illinois' graduate teaching and research assistants could be going on strike for the first time.

On Monday, the Graduate Employees' Organization announced the results of its strike authorization vote. Spokesman Peter Campbell said 92 percent of participating GEO members chose to authorize a strike against the UI Board of Trustees in votes taken over the course of three days last week.

Campbell said the vote is "a clear mandate to call a strike at any time."

"The strike committee met on Sunday, and there is a strike plan in place," Campbell said. "We've sent a letter asking the administration to meet (for negotiations) this week. We are interested in resolving this through negotiation."

Nov. 17 is the next meeting planned for negotiations.

In a mass e-mail Monday from the office of interim Provost Robert Easter, the UI said it expected the strike would begin on Nov. 16.

Peter Campbell, spokesman for the Graduate Employees' Organization, announces the passage of an intent-to-strike vote. The press conference was held Monday outside the McKinley YMCA at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

According to the GEO, its 2,700 bargaining unit members teach more than 23 percent of course hours at the undergraduate level on the Urbana campus.

The union, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers/Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300, AFL-CIO, has been negotiating with UI administrators for more than six months, seeking a contract that would set the minimum salary for a 50 percent nine-month appointment at the UI's estimate of a living wage for a graduate student, as well as protect tuition waivers for TAs and GAs.

Urbana campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said she was disappointed with the vote.

"We don't think it's in the best interest of the GEO or the UI to hold a strike, but we are planning for that eventuality," she said. "We're letting instructors know what's expected of them to provide an education for our students."

The provost's e-mail said:

"Financial planning is now focused on meeting and coping with financial stresses exceeding any the university has encountered for many, many years. Although we have seen welcome increases in research funding, and there have been successes in the advancement campaign, it must be understood that funds from those sources cannot be used for TA salaries. For these reasons, the GEO's request for a nearly 20 percent raise in the minimum stipend is untenable. As you know, other employees of the university did not receive raises this year, and the state's economic situation may yet require furloughs and other cost-saving measures before the end of the fiscal year."

The GEO said the administration's initial contract proposal sought to freeze GEO wages for three years, reserve the right to furlough and lay off graduate employees in good standing and to count "in-kind" compensation such as housing or meal vouchers toward the minimum.

Kaler said average total compensation for 50 percent assistants teaching 20 hours a week for nine months ranges from $27,840 to $45,430, including benefits and tuition waivers.

Almost 60 percent of graduate assistants are in that range, she said.

The GEO's figure is that a minimum salary is $13,430, Campbell said, and the union objects to counting tuition waivers as paid compensation.

"The administration doesn't count tuition toward its estimate of $16,086 as a living wage. This means that even if you count tuition waivers as part of compensation, grad employees would still make less than what is required to live on if they were required to pay tuition," Campbell said.

The GEO contends that its members' salaries are only 6.5 percent of Urbana's state funding, compared with 55 percent for faculty salaries.

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