UIC Graduate Student Union Suspends Strike After Three Weeks

UIC Strike ends
Kate McGee / WBEZ
UIC Strike ends
Kate McGee / WBEZ

UIC Graduate Student Union Suspends Strike After Three Weeks

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After three weeks of picketing, the graduate student employee union at the University of Illinois at Chicago has suspended its strike after agreeing to what it’s calling an historic contract.

The new contract, which still needs to be ratified, includes a 14 percent wage increase over three years and a reduction in health insurance costs for members. For the first time, it also includes partial health coverage for dependents.

“We’re tired, but we’re also celebrating this victory,” said Anne Kirkner, co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization. “We were overwhelmed from the support we felt from [faculty and students] and how they showed up every day giving us food, releasing statements. I think it really put pressure on administration.”

Graduate and teaching assistants will also see fees drop as well as a pay raise to offset expected fee increases next year. Fees were a sticking point for the student workers who say the hundreds of dollars they pay each semester acts as a pay cut. There will also be no new fees during the life of the contract.

In an email to the campus community, UIC said they were pleased to announce the agreement.

“We have always valued our graduate employees and their contributions to our academic mission,” the email read. “This agreement will help ensure a solid foundation for the future of our graduate workers while supporting all students as they pursue their educational goals at Chicago’s public research university.”

More than 500 classes were cancelled during the first week of the strike as grad student workers who teach classes stayed away. Most of the cancelled classes taught by teaching assistants were in the liberal arts and sciences departments. 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.

Mechanical engineering student Francisco Contreras said most of his science classes rely on teaching assistants.

“They’re really the ones who do the teaching one-on-one,” Contreras said, while he said professors teach the lectures. “They have a huge impact on the student body.”

Undergraduates joined the picket line Friday in solidarity with the graduate student employees. Many of them expressed frustration that classes were cancelled with little communication from university administrators. They’re asking the university for a partial tuition refund for lost class time. UIC did not respond to a request for comment about this proposal.

The university and the union reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday night, but the union continued to strike Friday because UIC’s bargaining team said they did not have the authority to negotiate terms to end the walkout that night.

“Things like that are cruel and insulting,” Kirkner said. “So, in that sense the university continues to surprise me and not in a good way. I hope they’ve learned something from this.”

According to the union, teaching and graduate assistants will have the opportunity to make up work hours they missed during the strike by May 3, so no one will have wages docked from their paycheck. They will also receive a retroactive $815 raise for this year in their next paycheck.

While grad student workers are relieved their strike is over, the union representing tenured, tenure-track and full-time non-tenure track faculty at UIC announced it’s holding a strike authorization vote Monday through Wednesday next week. Faculty have been without a contract since August 2018.

Kirkner says teachers from kindergarten through higher education institutions are tired of feeling mistreated.

“It’s been years and years of not seeing an investment in educators, in personnel, in people and I think that people are just getting to that point,” she said. “What we see time and again is strikes work and get results.”

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