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How UIC Grad Workers Fought the Neoliberal University Model — And Won

University of Illinois-Chicago graduate workers recently went on strike over high student fees, poverty wages, and the corporate higher education model. After nearly three weeks, they won.

UIC workers on strike, March 21, 2019. UIC GEO / Twitter

Between March 19 and April 5, graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) staged our first-ever strike. The work stoppage shut down the largest university in the country’s third biggest city. We were up against an intransigent, anti-union administration — and we won.

The strike was a rebellion against the neoliberal university model, which prioritizes “revenue generation” over education and research by exploiting students and workers. It was a challenge to the narrative that graduate school is a kind of hazing ritual and that grad workers should simply adjust themselves to poverty and misery.

UIC grad workers — who mostly work as teaching assistants and course instructors — are paid a minimum salary of $18,000 per year while having to pay up to $2,000 back to the university in the form of fees, leaving a paltry $16,000 to live on in Chicago. This despite the fact that we provide one-on-one attention to students, do the bulk of the grading, and frequently serve as the primary instructors for courses of as many as sixty undergrads.

A rapid community health assessment recently conducted by Radical Public Health, an advocacy organization at UIC’s School of Public Health, found that 77 percent of UIC grad workers don’t earn enough to afford all their basic living expenses, with 57 percent saying they’ve had to skip meals because they didn’t have enough money for food. Further, between 70 and 80 percent reported experiencing anxiety and depression due in part to living under constant financial stress.

Meanwhile, UIC is flourishing. The past three years in a row, the university president has received a $100,000 bonus to his $600,000 salary, while the chancellor got a $75,000 bonus in both 2016 and 2017. Enrollments are at record highs, and the campus recently acquired a law school.

Using the fees taken from undergraduate and graduate students, UIC has several multimillion-dollar construction projects underway, as well as an ambitious plan to invest $1 billion in infrastructure renovations, which, among other things, envisions building an ice-skating rink on campus.

When asked whether the university has similarly bold plans to invest in its educators, administrators appear puzzled by the question. Clearly, new buildings matter more to them than the human beings who do the teaching and learning inside those buildings.

On Strike

The strike followed a year of stalled contract negotiations between our union local, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), and the university. Importantly, this was not a defensive strike, but an offensive one. We were not fighting to hold onto something the university was trying to take away, but to achieve new gains.

At the bargaining table, we sought fee relief in addition to wage raises. In past contracts, GEO has won raises only to see them clawed back later through fee increases. Fees are central to administrators’ “revenue generation” strategy, allowing them to make students and student-workers pay the cost of their expensive real estate projects.

Another major issue in negotiations was transparency and consistency on how hiring and rehiring decisions are made — an enormous concern for precarious academic workers who don’t always know whether we’ll still have a teaching appointment from one semester to the next.

Facing the administration’s persistent rejection of nearly all our proposals, especially their resistance to any form of fee relief, we suspected early on we would have to go on an indefinite strike. But this would not be easy.

With constant turnover and an academic culture that promotes a calculating careerism over collective action, grad unions are notoriously difficult to organize. At a commuter campus like UIC, with over 1,500 union-represented grad workers across hundreds of departments, they can also simply be hard to find. Moreover, as low-wage workers living paycheck-to-paycheck, choosing to go on indefinite strike and risking losing pay is a huge gamble.

Yet the anger and exhaustion with being exploited by a multibillion-dollar institution, combined with member-to-member organizing, was enough to pull off the strike. Hundreds of classes were cancelled, and normal operations at UIC were brought to a standstill. This was no symbolic protest; it was a genuine work stoppage.

From the beginning, volunteer GEO activists did all the strategizing, organizing, bargaining, interacting with the media, and decision-making ourselves, with support from our local’s one paid staff person and occasional consultation from our lawyer. Members and elected member-leaders called the shots. There weren’t union staffers running the show behind the scenes, which in our times is practically unheard of for a job action of this magnitude.

The campus community overwhelmingly supported us. Faculty refused to be strikebreakers, while undergrads created a meme page to openly mock the anti-union messages being sent to them by the administration. When administrators tried teaching our classes in a couple departments, we repeatedly saw students choose not to attend because they didn’t want to cross the picket line.

We also had the backing of the wider community. Some UPS drivers with Teamsters Local 705 honored the picket line by refusing to make deliveries on campus. Our pickets were joined by musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, themselves on strike for seven weeks this spring, with trumpeter John Hagstrom giving a moving solidarity performance. And, Bernie Sanders tweeted out a message of support.

Victory

As the strike neared the three-week mark, the administration was finally forced to grant concessions. Things they had told us were impossible suddenly became possible, leading to an agreement that ended the strike.

For the first time, we got fees under control. Planned increases will be offset, future fees will be automatically waived, and the discriminatory “international student fee” — which is charged to about half of all GEO members — will be reduced by 50 percent. While the administration initially wanted to give us a 7 percent raise over five years, we instead got a 14 percent raise over three years — twice as much money in almost half as much time and our biggest raise ever.

We also won language requiring departments to implement transparent appointment and reappointment guidelines, a necessary step toward eliminating employment precarity. We reduced health care costs and got partial dependent-care coverage for the first time. We added new nondiscrimination protections around immigration/citizenship status and arrest record.

This is our best contract to date, won at a moment when the administration believed they could use the Janus decision to weaken and destroy our union. And we’ll get to return to the bargaining table in just two years to fight for more because we refused to accept a five-year or four-year contract that would have only benefitted the administration.

At the same time, the unionized faculty at UIC — going through a contentious round of contract talks themselves — were emboldened to authorize a strike of their own shortly after ours ended. Scared of provoking another work stoppage, administrators soon moved to reach a deal with the faculty union.

UIC undergraduates, many of whom come from working-class or immigrant backgrounds, were also emboldened to organize a solidarity walkout and rally with us on the last day of our strike. Noting how the strike “impressed upon [them] the importance and effectiveness of collective action,” undergrads are now forming a UIC Student Union.

GEO members ourselves are coming away from the strike feeling empowered and militant, including international grad student workers, who are traditionally the most hesitant to get involved due to visa worries and cultural barriers.

The notion that graduate school is inevitably miserable and exploitative is being replaced with the idea that grad student workers must collectively fight for the dignity and respect we deserve — and the belief that we can win. After all, UIC is not the administration’s university, but ours.