Striking For Their Lives

I met today with five members of Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6300 IFT/AFT University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana

On February 26th, the local and its 2,700 graduate employees, went on strike.  The union had worked for 196 days since its last contracted expired on August 15th. Central to their decision to strike was the University administration’s attempt to strip from student employees protection for tuition waivers.  Tuition waivers are literally a lifeblood of graduate student survival: they make their often near-poverty level stipends just enough to live on.  Taking away tuition waivers would make graduate school unaffordable for almost all students, and destroy a key protection defended by the union.  

The night before our meeting, a tentative agreement had been reached between the GEO negotiating team and the University.  As we met and talked, the membership was busy voting on the agreement, with a deadline of 9 p.m. that night.

Here are my observations about what had make the strike, up to the vote, a success, and likely victorious:

---From Day 1 GEO 6300 committed to several forms of union education: phone banks to contact members to pledge them to picket, and face-to-face meetings, mostly in offices on campus.  Member after member spoke of hard but productive discussions with members who were first hesitant to strike, afraid that missing teaching assignments---and not attending classes---could be injurious to their careers, and later seeing them out on the picket line.

---The Union earned the trust and support of faculty.  The UIUC Campus Faculty Association backed the strike with public statements and attendance at rallies.  A key moment of solidarity in the strike came when the UIUC administration sent a mass email to everyone on campus saying the strike threatened to “undermine faculty governance” at UIUC.  This laughable claim was received as such by faculty, who recalled the administration completely overriding faculty governance five years ago when it summarily fired tenured Palestinian-American faculty member Steven Salaita.

--During the strike, the Union held daily rallies at noon and 5 on campus, every day, and invited name speakers to speak.  The rally routine complemented disciplined daily picketing.

---The Union provided child care to strikers during the strike. It raised the question of child care for graduate student employees in the negotiation.

---The Union steadily tweeted out messages to its members under the hashtag #EducationForAll.  Some examples:

#EducationForAll means no more paying poverty wages for work that costs undergraduates hundreds of thousands of dollars @Illinois_Alma!

#EducationForAll means no more mystery fees that put buildings before students! @Illinois_Alma!

---The Union was relentlessly on guard about scabbing. Some professors advised undergraduate students to “out” any TAs who did not show up for their work assignment.  These examples were used by the Union to illustrate the criticality of staying united, not breaking the ranks, of solidarity. 

---The Union used multiple creative tactics: memes, videos, songs.  A Bangladeshi student read poetry at a rally, commemorating a regular practice used in labor and social movement struggles back home.  There were two separate occupations of campus buildings; the second was an Occupation of the President’s office.  That Occupation immediately precipitated the achievement of a tentative agreement.

To a person, members of the Union I spoke with felt they had at minimum staved off an effort by the University administration to destroy the Union.  They felt generally optimistic---though without unanimity of opinion---that the tentative agreement contained advances for the membership.

My biggest takeaway from meeting members of GEO 6300 was that, like the West Virginia teachers, whose strike coincided with their own, members knew that the power of a strong Union came not just in achieving better work conditions but in building political power.

As I finish writing this brief report, voting on the contract continues.  Results are likely to be announced tomorrow. Whatever the outcome, GEO rank and file have won something enormous: dignity, confidence and solidarity forged in struggle.