What is the Graduate Employees’ Organization, and what are its goals?
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, AFT/IFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, represents approximately 2,700 Teaching and Graduate Assistants on the UIUC Campus. With an active presence in the community, the GEO works for high-quality and accessible public education in Illinois.
Furthermore, the GEO is the official venue through which TAs and GAs can negotiate with the University administration over our healthcare, wages, and other working conditions.
Since unionizing, UIUC graduate employees, through the GEO, have pushed for and won better stipends, improvements in health insurance, and other benefits (for a more in depth history of the GEO, see A Brief History of the GEO).
GEO bargains with the University Administration in good faith toward mutually agreeable improvements to employment policies and benefits for graduate employees, including a grievance policy for work conflicts, employer-paid health insurance, and smaller classes and paid training for TAs. But most importantly, we want a strong voice in making changes to employment policies and benefits. For more details see our Statement of Mission and Goals.
Why should I join the GEO?
There is strength in numbers. Through a strong and active membership, the GEO has made significant improvements in graduate employee working conditions. The most significant improvements include increased stipends, dental insurance, vision care, a full subsidy of the McKinley Fee, a partial subsidy of student insurance, and strong protections against overwork, discrimination, and arbitrary discipline (see the contract summary for more info). Continued demonstration of unity will help enforce the contract we have now and help win improvements in healthcare and working conditions in the future. Furthermore, members, and only members, run the GEO. Becoming a member empowers you to have a voice in your union and your working conditions. To join, fill out this form to Become A Member and we will contact you so that you can sign a membership card.
Who is allowed to be a member of the union?
All graduate students are encouraged to become members of the GEO. As an organization, the GEO is committed to representing the interests of all graduate students with assistantships. In 2002, GEO won collective bargaining rights for most Teaching and Graduate Assistants through direct actions. Unfortunately, the University remains steadfast in denying RAs and PGAs the same rights that TAs and GAs now take for granted. All members in good standing of the GEO may vote regardless of current employment status. RAs and PGAs are encouraged to join so that GEO can more effectively ensure that the economic benefits won through the contract are extended to all graduate employees.
What are my rights as the member of a union?
As the member of a union, you have Weingarten Rights under the 1975 Supreme Court decision which declared that unionized employees have the right to have a steward or union representative present during an investigatory meeting with management when the employee believes the meeting might lead to disciplinary action being taken against them. You can use the below text to invoke your Weingarten Right.
“If the discussion in this meeting could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated or impact on my personal working conditions, I request that my steward, local officer or union representative be present. Until my union representative is present, I respectfully choose not to participate. This is my right under a Supreme Court decision called Weingarten.”
How do I get involved with GEO?
You can be an active member by:
- Signing a GEO membership card.
- Attending General Member Meetings (GMMs) and voting.
- Distributing GEO flyers, shirts, etc.
- Contacting your department steward (and becoming one yourself!) to help organize and inform your department.
- Becoming a member of a GEO committee, or just pitching in to help with planning, organizing, publicizing, and other activities.
Are there other universities with graduate employee unions?
Yes. There are over 30 campuses with unions bargaining contracts for graduate student employees, including the University of Illinois Chicago, Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, SUNY, and others. Graduate employee unions have been around since the 1970s.
Did we already have the protections that are stipulated in the contract?
No. Many of the procedures and protections resemble current university policy or practice while some protections are new. A recurring problem prior to the contract was that policies were only enforced when it was convenient for the Administration to do so. The contract is legally binding and has a built-in procedure to enforce the contract that ends in third-party binding arbitration. This means that a body other than the Administration decides whether the contract has been violated.
What do I do if the contract has been violated?
Contact the GEO immediately! The contract incorporates both informal and more formal methods of filing grievances and also let the individual grievant decide which method is most appropriate for his or her particular grievance. GEO has a lot of experience helping individual graduate employees with grievances. You can Submit a Grievance report on our website or email us.
Unionization and Its Effect on Assistantships and Duties
I’m an international student. If I join the union, will the university retaliate against me? Will I be in danger of losing my assistantship or deportation?
No. Every international graduate student, regardless of national origin or type of visa, has the right to join a union. Your right to belong to a union is protected by the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the United States Constitution. The University’s own Preamble to the Students Rights section of the Code of Policies and Regulations Applying to All Students states that students “have at least the rights and responsibilities common to all citizens.” This statement is not exclusionary of international students — it applies to all of us. The University’s non-discrimination statement also says that they cannot discriminate against someone because of their “national origin.”
That discrimination exists against international students, however, is clear. This is even more of a reason that international students should join the GEO and help fight for more protections. Only with a union, independent of the University administration, can you be assured that if you are subject to discrimination by the administration that there is a group that will stand behind you and will help to defend you.
In fact, international graduate assistants have many reasons to join the union. First, the union can provide a voice and advocacy for international graduate students who don’t always know the U.S. university system. Second, the union can help ensure that departmental hiring practices are clear, open, and fair so that international graduate students don’t miss out on work opportunities. Third, since U.S. law prohibits international students from being paid for more than 20 hours per week, the need for a insuring that the minimum stipend guarantees a decent living standard is even more critical for them. Fourth, better and more affordable benefits, a fair and enforceable grievance procedure, higher wages, a voice in our working conditions, and respect as employees are things all assistants and their families deserve.
(For more information on your rights as an international graduate employee, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If I join the Union will I be forced to go on strike?
No. A work action can only be authorized by a vote of the union’s membership. A strike can only work if people support it of their own accord. The GEO’s constitution ensures a member’s right to dissent through protections of the freedom of speech, protections against discrimination on the basis of political beliefs, and guarantees against limitations on an employee’s right to choose the time and manner of his or her work. Nowhere in the GEO constitution is the union’s leadership authorized to fine or discipline members for non-participation in a strike or for any other reason.
Doesn’t a graduate employee union just cost the University more money and lead to a decrease in the number of assistantships?
No. The data from UIUC shows that there is little correlation between providing good pay and benefits to grads and decreasing the number of assistantships. In 2002, prior to grads winning the bulk of the economic benefits, the University of Illinois greatly reduced the number of TAships available. The evidence from unionized campuses like the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan shows that fair pay and benefits do not result in a decline in the number of assistantships. University of Wisconsin graduate employees bargained union contracts between 1970 and 1979, but the UW administration refused to bargain from 1979 to 1987. UW Teaching Assistants and Project Assistants won union rights again in 1987 and have bargained regular contracts since 1988. Since 1988 the number of assistantships at the UW has actually gone up at the from 2,373 to 2,839. At the University of Michigan, TAs and Staff Assistants won their first contract in 1975 when there were 1,200 employees. In 2000 there were 1,650 assistants.
Budgets for assistantships are not fixed. They are dependent on undergraduate enrollment (demand for teachers) and graduate enrollment (supply of teachers). Budgets at state universities are also very political. We can have a greater impact on the political process if we are organized than if we have to rely on the good will of the legislature.
I’ve got a good relationship with my advisor and the professor I work under for my assistantship. Will a union damage that relationship and simply be an unnecessary, intrusive third party?
No. There are over 30 campuses in the United States and Canada where graduate employees have chosen to unionize and there is no evidence that collective bargaining has damaged relationships between graduate employees and their advisors. In fact, a survey by Gordon Hewitt (a researcher at Tufts University) found that graduate employee unions tend to create a positive environment on campus. Hewitt surveyed almost 300 faculty members in the liberal arts and sciences at universities with recognized graduate employee unions including the University of Massachusetts, SUNY Buffalo, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan and the University of Oregon. A faculty member at one of the universities said, “The graduate student union [on] our campus has had a positive impact on the working and, in turn, studying and research lives of our grad students. For our department, the contracts negotiated to date have helped regularize hiring, working and disciplinary procedures in positive ways.” Graduate employee unions don’t get in the way of good relationships between faculty and students because that’s not what their membership wants. The union’s purpose is to intervene when abuses occur.
Effect of Unionization on Pay
I work in the sciences and I am well-paid already. Will the GEO try to raise the stipends of poorly-paid employees by cutting or freezing the pay of well-paid employees?
No. The contract only stipulates minimum raises and stipends. The union is about “leveling up,” not down, and has stated on many occasions that, as a matter of principle, it will not seek to freeze or cut anyone’s pay to fund pay increases for others. In fact, the GEO constitution prohibits bargaining for pay caps or limits to employees’ rights to choose the time and manner of their work.
What are the dues?
Every graduate student can be a card-signed member of the Union. Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants who become members of the Union pay 2% of their pre-tax earnings as dues. The Union is legally required to represent all Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants in contract negotiations and contract disputes; the Union’s ability to represent its members, and all other union activities are entirely supported by dues. Research Assistants and Pre-professional Graduate Assistants are not legally represented but the standards for their employment contracts are set based on the TA/GA contract. They can become card signed members of the union as well and pay flat dues of $3 per month. Any graduate students who are hourly employees, Fellows, or unemployed are not represented but are encouraged to join the union, and will not pay dues. The GEO has never raised dues in the history of the Union.
How will dues be spent?
Running an effective union requires many expenses including staff, office space, computers, office equipment, mailings, supplies, etc. Also, as an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, we pool money together with other locals to pay for legal support, legislative campaigns, trainings for members, and advisors to help us bargain and deal with grievances. Elected officers allocate the GEO’s local budget, and GEO has delegates who help determine how pooled resources are spent. With a financially healthy union we can enforce the contract and gain strength for the next contract fight.
Will the cost of union dues wipe out any increases in pay and benefits we may get?
No. Dues have been set in such a way that everyone covered by the contract has benefits that far outweigh dues. For example, a TA in Chemistry with a 50% appointment would pay around $35/month in dues. However, that employee would take home an additional $122/month in 2005-6 due to the contract! This is even more impressive when you factor in past victories (such as fully subsidized vision and dental) and non-economic benefits and protections grads now enjoy.
GEO’s Affiliation With the Illinois and American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO
Why is the GEO affiliated with national labor unions? What do they know about graduate employees?
As professionals working in higher education, graduate employees share much with the other members of our state and national affiliates. The GEO is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a 1,000,000-member organization that represents graduate employees at the Universities of Wisconsin (Madison and Milwaukee), Michigan, Kansas, Florida, South Florida and Oregon, Temple, Wayne State, Michigan State, the City University of New York, Oregon State, Florida A&M, as well as college professors, K-12 teachers and other public employees. Our state affiliate, the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), with over 85,000 members, represents professors at Eastern, Western, and Northern Illinois Universities as well as professors at many community colleges in the state, K-12 teachers and other public employees. Within the AFT we are part of the Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals (AGEL) that helps to coordinate policy for the AFT. The GEO is a very large local within the IFT and sends delegates to the IFT and AFT conventions, which set policy and oversee budgets at the state and national level. Through our affiliation with the national AFL-CIO we are part of a network of unions across the country that are fighting for workplace and economic justice just as we are. The AFL-CIO provides valuable resources and knowledge that benefits us in our drive for recognition and that will help us as we move into negotiations with the administration. Besides providing solidarity in our struggle, they also lobby in Washington DC on behalf of working people and for policies that enhance our rights as employees.
What relationship does the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have with the Graduate Employees’ Organization?
The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) was formed in 1988 by Teaching, Research, and Graduate Assistants on this campus with an eye to improve their own salaries, health care, and workload. In 1995, after much research and discussion, the GEO membership voted to affiliate with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and its parent union the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT has proven experience with higher education: it represents graduate employees at the universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Oregon, and Temple, as well as college professors across the country. On these campuses graduate employees run their own unions by electing their own officers, filing their own grievances, and bargaining their own contracts. The most important factor in choosing to affiliate with the AFT was that they offered us a network of support and resources without threatening the autonomy of our union as a democratic organization, which has always and will always be run by us and for us — its graduate employee members. This full organizational autonomy is guaranteed by our constitution. In short, the “outside” voices the administration fears are really the “inside” voices of graduate employees in a strong, democratic union.