“I am convinced that justice is a constant struggle, and where you find no struggle, you find no justice.” ~ Bryan Stevenson, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative

Key dates in GEO history

Spring 1995 Affiliation with IFT/AFT
Winter 1995 First attempt to reduce tuition waivers
April 1996 Petition filed for a union election
Spring 1997 First union election
April 1998 Work-in at Henry Admin Building in support of unionization
March 1999 Student referendum supports graduate employees’ right to organize
20-hour sit-in at the Board of Trustees office
June-Oct. 2000 Legal recognition of graduate employees’ right to organize
November 2001 Two-day work stoppage over suppression of right to vote in union election
March 2002 Occupation of the Swanlund Administration Building results in March 13thagreement of the administration to discuss the scope of the bargaining unit
April 2002 Bargaining unit defined as TAs and GAs; three-day strike averted
December 2002 Second union election
August 2004 First three-year contract (2003-2006) ratified by membership
Spring 2007 Second contract (2006-2009) ratified
February 2009 Second attempt to reduce tuition waivers
November 2009 Two-day strike wins tuition waiver protection in third contract (2009-2012)
Fall 2010 Contract violated by reduction of tuition waivers in 5 FAA departments


The early years

Graduate employees have been organizing at the University of Illinois since the early 1970s, when a group called the Assistants Union first worked to improve working conditions. In the late 1980s the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) got together to voice graduate assistants’ concerns over issues such as salaries, workload, and health care, as well as a perceived lack of campus parking. An early victory came when the GEO convinced the administration to delay payment of student fees until the first payday. Previously students had to pay at the start of the semester, when they were already responsible for rent and books without a paycheck. After
initial success, this early GEO became inactive.

In the fall of 1993, a new crop of graduate employees began building an active organization with the goal of matching the achievements of unions at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. A steering committee researched working conditions and benefits for grad employees at the U of I and at peer institutions. In the spring of 1994 the GEO successfully rallied grads against the administration’s plan to stop issuing staff ID cards to assistants. With the ID cards assistants were able to retain many benefits such as staff parking, access to the Illini Credit Union, and discounts as state of Illinois employees.

During the 1994-95 academic year, the GEO grew and changed significantly. A lively organizing committee helped increase membership. In the spring of 1995, we conducted a survey of assistants with strong support for unionization, improvement in health care, and a new grievance procedure. Also in the spring of 1995, after much research and discussion, GEO affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), joining over 70,000 Illinois educators in that organization. During the summer of 1995, along with other graduate employee unions in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), they formed the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals (AGEL).

GEO organizers sign-up new members at a table set up in the lobby of a university building.

In the fall of 1995, GEO members began a drive to gather signatures for a petition for a union election. The authorization “card drive” required the efforts of literally hundreds of GEO rank-and-file activists. Whether “talking union” with their co-workers, volunteering their Wednesday evenings to put out mass mailings, or standing on campus appealing to passing strangers (“Are you a grad assistant?”), member-organizers from every department made success a reality.

Of course, the administration helped out, too, by announcing the desire to radically restructure the tuition waiver program and a plan to end guaranteed full tuition waivers for future graduate employees. The crisis showed the usefulness of organization: the GEO was able to inform grad assistants about the changes, funnel their concerns to the administration, and build a coalition of graduate groups to oppose the changes. We also discovered the limits of our present organization. Although we got the administration to drop the most outrageous elements of their plan, without a contract we could do nothing to stop most of the changes, namely with respect to health care. The GEO helped to secure improvements in health care and dental benefits, but these real changes in the benefits were minimal because they came from our raise pool. With these lessons in mind, graduate assistants signed on to the union effort in increasing numbers.

Winning the right to unionize
By April of 1996 3,226 graduate assistants had signed cards in support of the GEO’s call for a union election. The GEO filed these cards as a petition with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board(IELRB) to request a union election. Instead of agreeing to an election, the University of Illinois administration chose to fight us in court, arguing that graduate employees are students and therefore not covered by the Labor Act (see link).

While the legal case wound its way slowly through hearings before an administrative law judge and later the full IELRB, graduate employees mobilized to demonstrate their desire for a union. In an election overseen by a local group of ministers and lay workers in the spring of 1997, graduate employees chose GEO as their union representative with 64% of the vote. The university administration refused to recognize the results of that election, and they rebuffed repeated efforts to engage them in dialogue during the fall of 1997.

GEO History Steward Toby Higbie testifies before the Illinois State House of Representatives’ Labor Committee concerning House Bill 1208. With him are the bill’s sponsor Rep. Todd Stroger and IFT Legislative Director Karen Williams.

Then in February of 1998 the GEO received the bad news that two of the three members of the Labor Board had ruled that while student status did not constitute an explicit exclusion from the Labor Act, the work of graduate employees was so deeply intertwined with their education that their jobs were primarily educational. The dissenting opinion in that case argued that TAs and GAs are employees. The GEO immediately appealed the case to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

In April of 1998 the GEO held its first “work-in,” a massive event that brought over 400 graduate employees to the Henry Administration Building to teach classes, grade papers, and educate the public about the goals of the GEO. Over the course of the next year we worked on passing legislation affirming graduate employees’ collective bargaining rights, and in March of 1999 our bill passed the lower house of the General Assembly with bipartisan support. Due to the lobbying of the university administration, the bill was buried in the Senate Rules Committee and never came to a vote.

By that point, the GEO had pursued every established channel to win the right to represent ourselves. We were totally shut out of university decision making, including university committees dealing with employment issues and benefits. Repeated efforts to engage the administration in dialogue failed.

But the tide was already turning in our direction. Two major legal decisions in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cleared the way for student employees in the private sector to unionize. These cases didn’t necessarily set precedent for Illinois, but they didn’t hurt either. Meanwhile, the demise of House Bill 1208 sparked a new round of activism by graduate employees and more statements of support from the community.

GEO members and supporters rally outside the Henry Administration Building following the Spring 2000 sit-in.

Deciding on the bargaining unit (BU)


In early March 1999, a student referendum (sponsored by the Illinois Student Government) in support of graduate employees’ right to union representation passed by a 77% margin. At the end of March, 55 graduate employees and supporters (including clergy, union members, and student government leaders) held a 20-hour sit-in at the Board of Trustees office to draw public attention to the administration’s policy of non-recognition. Outside of the sit-in, 200 supporters held a rally in the afternoon, while about 50 braved the cold night air to stand in support of the action. Ten days later we held our largest-ever membership meeting.

On June 30, 2000, the Illinois Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, overturned the IELRB’s decision denying graduate employees the right to choose union recognition. Calling the Labor Board’s decision “clearly erroneous” and based on an “overly simplistic interpretation” of Illinois educational labor law, the Court sent the case back to the Board for reconsideration. They must now allow “those individuals whose assistantships are not significantly connected to their status as students … the same statutory right to organize as other educational employees.” This decision opened the door for what graduate employees have wanted for so long—to exercise our democratic right to choose the GEO as our representative. The decision was reaffirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court on October 4, 2000, when they rejected the university administration’s appeal.

Led by GEO Co-President Uma Pimplaskar, members of the GEO picket in front of Lincoln Hall during the Fall 2001 two-day walkout.

At first, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) approved extremely restrictive preliminary guidelines for who would be allowed to vote in the union election. Graduate students employed as teachers, researchers, or assistants whose employment duties overlapped with their “academic discipline”—a category the University of Illinois administration suggested—were to be excluded. Of the approximately 5,200 Teaching, Research, and Graduate Assistants on the Urbana-Champaign campus, some 95% would have been denied this right.

In response to the IELRB decision, the GEO membership voted to hold a two-day work stoppage. On November 28 and 29, 2001, over 350 graduate employees in Gregory Hall, Lincoln Hall, the English Building, Davenport Hall, and the Foreign Languages Building walked off the job. 70% of TAs in the target buildings took part, and 8-10,000 students were affected each day. Hundreds of GEO members and supporters picketed, chanted, and sang in the cold and rain on the Quad and around main administration buildings. A resolution in the Illinois House of Representatives called on the Administration to bargain with graduate employees. The GEO at the University of Illinois at Chicago even showed their solidarity by occupying the UIC Chancellor’s office. Despite the success of the work stoppage, the position of the University of Illinois administration remained unchanged. Therefore, at the first membership meeting of 2002, GEO members authorized further actions, including work stoppages and the possibility of other disruptions later in the semester.

The GEO had already scheduled a three-day strike for the second week of April when on March 13, 2002, nearly 50 members and supporters of the GEO entered and occupied the Swanlund Administration Building. Beginning at 7:45 am, GEO members stood in all the entrances to prevent any University employees from entering the building. The building, which normally holds 100+ employees, was completely closed down by this action. Timed to coincide with the arrival of the Board of Trustees to the Urbana-Champaign campus for a two-day meeting, GEO members were determined to stay until the administration agreed to begin negotiations with
them over an out-of-court settlement to the now seven-year battle—or until they were arrested.

Bowing to the pressure of the sit-in and the upcoming walkout, University of Illinois officials reversed their long-standing policy of refusing to negotiate with the Graduate Employees’ Organization. Provost Richard Herman, accompanied by Deputy University Legal Counsel Steve Veazie, conceded to a series of meetings with GEO representatives to determine which graduate employees would be eligible to vote in a union election and covered by a union contract. [(Click here for the full text of the March 13, 2002 agreement.)] As a result of the March 13th agreement, the administration agreed to a series of negotiations to determine the scope of the bargaining unit. They argued that most grad employees should be excluded from collective bargaining, while the GEO bargaining team advocated that all graduate employees (RAs, TAs, and GAs) be included in bargaining unit.

Provost Richard Herman (holding paper) and University Legal Counsel Steve Veazie (white shirt on right) present a proposal to GEO members occupying the Swanlund Administration Building during the sit-in of March 13, 2002. The administration agreed to enter into talks to reach an out-of-court settlement to the ongoing legal battle over collective bargaining rights for graduate employees.

Weary of the University of Illinois officials’ slow movement, graduate employees continued organizing toward a planned 3-day strike in mid-April 2002. During the weeks leading up to this work action, the GEO notified the administration that a report on negotiations would be given to the membership before graduate employees voted to continue with the plan to strike. After weeks of intense and lengthy negotiations, the admins finally presented a revised proposal concerning bargaining unit membership. The day before the strike, they agreed that almost all TAs and GAs be included in the bargaining unit but excluded RAs. At the membership meeting that night, GEO members greeted the proposal with excitement. Many were disappointed by the restrictive position concerning RAs’ right to collectively bargain, but members generally agreed that this proposal was an immense victory. After nearly seven weeks of negotiations, the GEO and university officials had come to an agreement on the composition of the bargaining unit, and the strike was averted.

The second union election (December 2002)
Throughout the summer and fall of 2002, the GEO prepared for another union election. As part of the election drive, community organizations, churches, local labor unions, legislators and community leaders signed on to a letter to the administrators of the University of Illinois asking them to remain neutral on the issue of whether employees should be represented collectively.
The letter argued that union representation is a legal right and a personal decision for employees, and it specifically asked that the administration sign a pledge not to intimidate, harass, or influence employees’ participation in the election. After the admins refused, the GEO organized a “free and fair election rally” on the steps of the Swanlund Administration Building to publicly encourage them to sign the pledge. They maintained silence.

Having defined a large bargaining unit, the GEO urged the labor board to schedule the union election for Spring 2003. We supported a spring election for two reasons: 1. A spring election would give TAs an adequate time to evaluate union representation, and 2. TAs excluded from the bargaining unit in their first semester would be eligible to vote. This would have allowed Chemistry, Biological Sciences, German, and Psychology graduate employees to vote, too. The administration disagreed, and the labor board scheduled the election for the week before fall final exams: December 3-4, 2002.

With only a month’s notice of the election date, the GEO initiated an intense organizing drive. Hundreds of graduate employees and labor volunteers talked with the over 2,500 TAs and GAs eligible to vote. Despite the poor timing of the election, on December 3-4, 2002, over half of the eligible graduate employees participated. By a 3 to 1 margin (1188 to 347), they overwhelmingly voted for GEO to represent them at the bargaining table. As a newly officially recognized union, in February 2003 the GEO elected an official bargaining team and voted on a bargaining platform. GEO members consciously elected RAs such as chief negotiator Rosemary Braun
(RA, Physics) to demonstrate that the GEO advocates for all graduate employees regardless of employment status.

Rather than easing into initial negotiations, however, the GEO again had to fight for an inclusive and transparent process. The administration urged closed-door negotiation meetings and argued that RAs should not be allowed at the negotiating table. The GEO did not back down from its position that all employees have a right to attend and participate in meetings, and the admins finally conceded to open and inclusive meetings. As negotiations proceeded throughout the spring and the fall of 2003, the GEO expanded its membership and developed a stronger organizing infrastructure. Physics and Computer Science tripled their membership and
participation while historically well-represented departments developed stronger communication networks.

Members of the GEO picket outside a bargaining session Fall 2003.

The first two contracts (2003-2006 and 2006-2009)
Over the summer in 2003, GEO negotiated a 3% raise for fall 2003-2004, breaking a two-year wage freeze. Additionally, the administration agreed to provide dental and vision health insurance plans for graduate employees. These were major victories that set a strong precedent for future negotiations. Over 2003-2004, the GEO and the admins continued the negotiations that set the groundwork for the GEO’s first contract. In August 2004, GEO members ratified the first contract by a 98% margin (610 Yes, 10 No). The contract guaranteed 3% wage increases per year, elimination of the McKinley clinic fee, and a phased reduction of medical insurance premiums. In addition, the GEO successfully negotiated a series of employee protections, including a grievance procedure with third-party binding arbitration, a non-discrimination clause, and Fair Share, which allows the union to more effectively bargain with university officials and enforce the contract.

Over the course of 2004-2006, the GEO focused on streamlining the grievance process and advocating for better health care for grads and their dependents. As the first contract expired in August 2006, a dedicated volunteer bargaining team returned to the bargaining table hoping to focus on health care. Negotiations went slowly, but our fellow workers on campus helped us put pressure on the University. In the spring of 2007, the GEO ratified an improved contract for 2006-2009 with back-pay and a greater subsidy of graduate health care and wages. In 2007- 2008 the GEO focused on building membership and developing stronger relationships with community organizations and campus labor groups. In the fall of 2007, we supported campus building and food service workers union SEIU in their negotiation for pay equity and greater worker protections. In the spring of 2008, we hosted the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals (AGEL) conference. Representatives from GEO-University of Michigan, TAA-University of Wisconsin, GTFF-University of Oregon, GAU-University of Florida, and other graduate employee unions joined us to discuss national organizing strategies, building local coalitions, and developing membership.

The third contract (2009-2012)
In January of 2009, the administration again floated a plan to reduce tuition waiver coverage to only those working a 50% appointment, among other worrisome proposals. This was concerning to programs like Fine & Applied Arts and the Medical Scholars Program that depend on students’ ability to work smaller appointments while still on waivers. Students, department chairs, and the GEO protested, and the administration (publicly) shelved the plan.

When bargaining began in April, the GEO team presented a complete contract proposal at the first meeting. When the university bargaining team insisted on discussing “ground rules” instead of actual contract language, we brought in a federal mediator. All spring and summer, the university team asked questions and requested more research; it finally presented a regressive package counter-proposal just days before the previous contract expired. Rather than accept in-kind compensation and an entirely in-house grievance procedure, GEO members decided to work without a contract while continuing negotiations.

Rally at the airport the day an agreement was not reached. A strike was called that night. Nov. 14, 2009.

Progress was extremely slow. Their bargaining team only made movement at the table when we put pressure on them, whether that was loud rallies outside the bargaining sessions or a unanimous intent-to-strike vote. Then, in early November, a strike authorization vote overwhelmingly passed (92% of 777 votes cast). Despite making concessions on securing a living wage and more affordable health insurance, the GEO bargaining team was not able to get a written assurance from the administration that it would protect tuition waivers. So on November 16 and 17, 2009, more than 1,000 graduate employees and supporters walked picket lines in the cold and wet around buildings on the Main Quad. It was a historic strike, one of only five work actions in the country that year that involved more than 1,000 workers. Due to the immense pressure, we were able to sign a side letter guaranteeing the status quo at the bargaining session scheduled on the morning of the second day. Shortly after noon, the strike was suspended, and we gathered happily that evening to vote to end the strike and finally ratify a contract that secured tuition waivers.

In the bargaining room, 2009.

However, the détente did not last. Just months after the new contract was signed, in the summer of 2010, the College of Fine and Applied Arts (FAA) reduced tuition waivers in five departments (Music, Dance, Theater, Landscape Architecture, Urban & Regional Planning) from the out-of-state to the in-state rate, a difference of $13,000 per year. Partial scholarships were offered, but this left many students with thousands of dollars to pay out of pocket—even those who had come for a Master’s Degree and stayed for a Ph.D.—and on salaries often less than $1,000 per month.

The union grieved this violation of our contract with the university administration and filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB). We won a resounding decision from a federal arbitrator in September of 2011, but the university admins claimed after the fact that the ruling was not binding after all. They twice asked to settle with the affected students without changing the new policy. So GEO filed another ULP. This was not an auspicious development in relationship between the University of Illinois and the graduate employees, as bargaining over the next contract commenced in spring of 2012.

The fourth contract (2012-2015)
As voted on by the membership, the four pillars this time around were a Fair & Living Wage; Access & Equality; Health Care; and Tuition Waivers. Bargaining began on April 13, 2012, without any discussion of “ground rules,” but progress was slow, even on non-monetary issues like explicit anti-discrimination language and accommodations for nursing mothers, both U of I policies already that allow union protection and representation once in the contract.

The previous contract expired August 15, and graduate employees again went to work while asking the administration to bargain in good faith: “Work with us!” In November 2012, we were incredibly gratified when the IELRB found entirely in the GEO’s favor regarding tuition waivers. The board ruled that waivers are a form of compensation and therefore a mandatory subject of bargaining. In addition, intent-to-strike and strike authorization votes passed resoundingly, warning the university admins that we were willing stand up for the rights and interests of both current and future graduate employees on this campus.



Updated 27 November 2012.