The graduate student union at the University of Illinois at Chicago is preparing what they have called an “indefinite strike” beginning March 19th, unless their demands for higher wages and better working conditions are met by the university administration.
Their declaration and dedication to strike comes at the end of nearly a year of negotiation with administrators who have stalled the process to a halt, a common tactic used to stymie graduate student unions. Graduate workers at the school are paid just $16,000 a year after mandatory fees, and are in most departments expected to be the chief, standalone instructor in classes with over 60 students.
The movement at UIC is but a part of the larger reawakening of labor struggles in academia in Chicago and across the country. At Loyola Chicago, administrators have refused to bargain with the graduate student union there, and have instead attempted half-measures to stem the tide of growing graduate student resentment, from adding a minimal dental plan to allowing graduate student workers to hold a second job. Across the country from the ivy league to small directional schools, graduate workers have begun unionizing efforts, and continue to struggle to be recognized and fairly bargained with by campus administrators.
The movement has grown alongside the movement for fair wages and workplace democracy across the country, and stems from the particularly grim wages and conditions faced by graduate student workers. Graduate students are much more likely to suffer from mental illness, be victims of suicide, and struggle to find gainful employment with benefits after graduating, and often earn less than minimum wage after mandatory fees and campus health insurance which often isn’t covered. At Northern Illinois University, graduate assistants in most departments make just $10,000 a year after fees and insurance costs for being the lead teacher in four classes a year. Facing these dire working conditions, many ununionized graduate students also often lack any sort of recourse with administration, and have no contractual rights to resist or have dialogue with department and campus administrators on what they teach.
This is compounded by the inflated salaries and unassailable positions of most college administrators. At Western Illinois University, faculty have suffered two rounds of layoffs while administrators have remained mostly unharmed. The first round took two-dozen faculty positions, 7 tenure track faculty members and 17 instructors, while leaving a further 62 faculty positions vacant. The most recent layoffs, occurring in late February 2019, saw 132 employees lose their jobs, including 29 faculty members, 89 civil service workers, 12 academic service personnel—and just two administrators. At Northern Illinois University in 2017, outgoing president Doug Baker was paid $600,000 severance after being run out for corruption and nepotism.
Administrators and academic capitalists who benefit off the sweat of students who often work low paying jobs to go to school and student workers who are paid unlivable wages to pursue their field of study have their own organizations that defend their interests. The growing movement in Chicago and across the country demands and is creating an organization of workers. Organizations of working people must be the driving force in the struggle for a fairer, more democratic workplace and society. The resistance offered by administrators at UIC and across the country to graduate student worker organizations just underlines the threat organized workers pose to those who would continue to make education a profit mill.
A strike is a very difficult financial burden for graduate student workers who often live paycheck to paycheck, and facing a potentially lengthy struggle, the UIC GEO has called for donations to support its members. Donate to their struggle here.