UIC Grad Workers Reach Tentative Contract But Strike Continues

UIC Strike
Graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have been on strike for three weeks. Kate McGee / WBEZ
UIC Strike
Graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have been on strike for three weeks. Kate McGee / WBEZ

UIC Grad Workers Reach Tentative Contract But Strike Continues

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

The union representing graduate student workers union at the University of Illinois at Chicago has reached a tentative contract agreement with the university after a nearly three-week strike.

But the union says it will continue to strike Friday because the bargaining team for UIC did not have the authority to negotiate terms to end the strike, including a settlement for grad student worker back pay during the strike.

Undergraduates plan to join the grad workers Friday, boycotting class to support them and protest how long it took the university to negotiate a contract.

“The administration won’t listen to our concerns or how the problems they alone have created are hurting us,” read a flyer posted on social media by the UIC Student Union, a new campus group representing undergraduates. “Let’s make them listen! Let’s make some demands! It’s time they start caring about our education.”

While grad student workers appear headed toward a resolution, the union representing tenured, tenure-track and full-time non-tenure track faculty at UIC announced its holding a strike authorization vote Monday through Wednesday next week. Faculty have been without a contract since August, 2018.

“Our bargaining team has won many important concessions, but on issues of pay and equity, we have yet to see a serious offer,” wrote UIC United Faculty President Janet Smith in a letter to members this week. “While enrollment booms and billion-dollar infrastructure plans are being touted proudly, we are being told to tighten our belts and accept a sub-par compensation plan, without any provisions to offset anticipated increasing health care costs.”

Picketing among grad student workers continued this week after a pause during last week’s spring break. On Monday, striking graduate student workers were joined by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is also on strike.

More than 500 classes were cancelled during the first week of the strike as grad student workers who teach classes stayed away, according to data obtained by WBEZ and first reported by the Chicago Tribune.

UIC graduate assistants, represented by the Graduate Employees Organization, have been striking for better wages and a reduction in student fees, which can total hundreds of dollars. The union has argued these fee act as a pay cut to grad student workers, who make a minimum of $18,065 for nine months of work.

The tentative three-year contract will reduce fees for international students and an expected fee increase next fall will be negated by a pay increase, according to the union. UIC also agreed to an additional $150 pay increase on top of that. There will be no new fees during the life of the new contract.

The new contract will also include a 14 percent wage increase over three years and a reduction in health insurance costs for members. For the first time, UIC also agreed to cover part of the health insurance cost for dependents.

Most of the classes taught by teaching assistants that were cancelled during the first week of the strike were in the liberal arts and sciences department. One hundred and twenty-five classes were cancelled in biological sciences and 90 were called off that week in mathematics, statistics and computer science. Data was not available for some departments, including English and philosophy.

Emily Hallgren is a teaching assistant in the sociology department, where 55 classes were cancelled that first week. She says she didn’t realize it would be so hard to make ends meet while pursuing her PhD.

“You’re always looking right before payday and you’ve got a few dollars left and you’re hoping you don’t go under zero,” Hallgren said while picketing earlier this week. “It’s really stressful and disheartening to live that way. All we want is for the university to … say ‘we value you, we respect you and we’re going to compensate you enough so you’re not living in constant financial distress.’”

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.