Grad Union Demands Recognition at U-Illinois

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

Dennis Grammenos

OVER THE PAST few years, graduate employees at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign have been organizing ourselves into a union-the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO).  Sporadic efforts to unionize can be traced back to the early 1970s, although it would appear that each campaign dissipated as the university would stall and wait out the hopeful unionists that never quite managed to affiliate themselves with a union.

Graduate employee unions operate under a different set of dynamics than most unions.  Grads enter a program expecting to be there for only a relatively short period of time, earn an advanced degree, and move on to get a “real” job. Most of the time, grads feel vulnerable and depend on the good will of our advisors and departments.

In a place like Urbana-Champaign employment opportunities outside the campus are limited, and grads become a pool of cheap labor from which the university can fill its needs.  It is understandable, therefore, that the administration would respond to unionization drives by trying to wait out the few activists who launch a campaign.  It should be noted that recently, when the University of Illinois took over Sangamon State University in Springfield and converted it into the Springfield campus, the administration busted the faculty union there with characteristic callousness.

This time around, things are different.  In the spring of 1995, the GEO affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT/AFT, AFL-CIO).  In the spring of 1996, the grad employees followed the rules of the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB) and delivered 3,226 authorization-for-representation cards to the campus administration.  To give ourselves a voice in decisions that affect our working conditions and benefits, we petitioned the university to recognize the GEO as our union.

Are Students Who Work Workers?

Usually, when authorization-for-representation cards are filed with the IELRB, that organization will merely verify that at least a third of the cards are valid, and proceed with an election.  However, the university administration fought the GEO’s request.  When the IELRB called for hearings, university lawyers put on a vigorous anti-union case.

The thrust of their argument has been that graduate employees are not employees but, rather, “merely students.” By arguing along this line, the administration is playing to a peculiar Illinois statute that precludes “students” from unionizing.  It should be noted that the university has the notorious union-busting law firm Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather and Geraldson on contract, for an undisclosed fee.

With approximately 5,400 graduate employees working at the Urbana-Champaign campus, the GEO bargaining unit would be the largest such unit in the country.  Determined to prevent the inevitable, the administration claims that we are students on “scholarships.”  The implication is that graduate employees should just accept our assignments and be grateful for the university’s generosity and benevolence.

During the hearings, university lawyer Steven Veazie argued that assistantships are merely an extension of graduate training since they contribute to the grads’ education in our own fields.  The GEO pointed out that this is a disingenuous argument.  Often grads end up working in fields totally unrelated to our own and in positions that can impart little-if any-useful “training.”  What these positions have in common is that they are jobs that earn a living for the graduate employee, and jobs that keep the university working.

Several grad employees, who had previously filed affidavits describing working conditions, found their records were subpoenaed by the administration’s lawyers.  Letters were sent to departments-and every faculty member who might have written a recommendation for such grad employees-tersely informing them of the subpoena.  Despite the intimidation, a number of grad employees took the stand to testify.  They were joined by a handful of faculty, including Cary Nelson of The Manifesto of a Tenured Radical fame, who were quite eloquent in championing the grads’ cause.

The hearing officer, Nora Crandall, ruled that the term “students” in the statute covers the graduate employees at the University of Illinois.  Needless to say, the GEO has appealed the ruling; a decision is expected before the end of the fall semester.

What Work Do Graduate Employees Do?

Who are all these graduate employees that the administration refuses to recognize as workers?  Many are Research Assistants (RAs); this could mean a grad working in an Electrical Engineering lab doing research that may-or may not-be part of one’s dissertation work, or it could mean a grad from the Geography department working at the Community Health department entering data on an epidemiology project (with no previous interest, experience or connection to the field except for a bout with childhood measles).  In one case, an RA was the departmental go-fer whose duties included chauffeuring visiting scholars, making sure that the housing was adequate and clean-even getting down on his knees to scrub the toilet bowl clean.

Other graduate employees are Graduate Assistants (GAs), a catch-all category that includes a range of positions unrelated to the academic field of a particular grad assistant.  Some GAs work as counselors at the financial aid office, others work in the library cataloguing books, still others are residential advisors in the dorms.

It has been obvious all along that GAs position undermined the administration’s argument that assistantships are part of the training provided to grads.  Recently the administration moved to strengthen its legal case by gutting this category, converting most GA jobs to “hourly” work where employees have no tuition waivers.

Another category of graduate employees are Teaching Assistants (TAs).  This includes grads who assist faculty in teaching by running discussion sections or lab sections.  Introductory classes of more than 500 undergraduates are quite common at the University of Illinois; without the assistance of TAs such class sizes would be inconceivable.

Some TAs end up teaching entire courses, both introductory and advanced, on their own. In fact, fully fifty percent of the introductory undergraduate classes and a good deal of upper-level classes are taught by TAs at the university.  There are even TAs who have designed and taught advanced classes to both undergraduates and other graduate students.  One class in particular was taught by a full professor for forty-four years.  When that professor retired, the department did not hire a new faculty member-rather, the department turned over the class to a graduate employee for a fraction of the cost it would have taken to replace the retired professor.

There are grads that end up being the primary instructors in very large classes where they find themselves in charge of several other grad TAs!  Such classes used to be taught by faculty members, but these days they are being taught by grads or part-time “adjunct” faculty.

It should be noted that TAs are often among the best teachers on campus, judging from student evaluations published each semester.  They are enthusiastic, hard- working, accessible, and tuned to the needs of their students.  This is a reality acknowledged by many undergrads and even by some university faculty.  Hence, the fact that talented graduate employees teach classes is not really an issue.  The issue is that the administration exploits graduate employees in a variety of ways-and then has the effrontery to claim that graduate employees cannot unionize because they are “merely students.”

The Spring 1997 Elections

Despite the administration’s refusal to even talk to representatives of the GEO, in April 1997 the GEO held a campus-wide union election that was monitored and certified by the Religious Workers’ Association of Urbana-Champaign.  The election was run according to IELRB rules.

Graduate employees poured into the polling stations to register support for the GEO and dismay at the university’s union-busting tactics.  And although it carries no legal weight, the election was won by the GEO in a two-to-one landslide.

Just before the election, a small group of anti-union grads emerged in some engineering and science departments.  Their anti-union rhetoric echoed arguments used by a number of administrators in the recent past: a union will decrease the number of appointments available, a union will disrupt the relationship between grads and their advisors, a union would lead to “pay-leveling” across departments (science and engineering grad employees earn substantially more than others), and unions promote mediocrity.

More alarmingly, on the day of the election, election monitors learned that many international grads (particularly Asians) had been contacted by “unidentified” parties and were encouraged to either vote against the GEO or not vote at all. The racist, anti-union slander argued that if GEO were to win the election, union troublemakers would demand exorbitant increases in pay for grad employees; the administration would be forced to accommodate such increases by trimming the number of assistantships available; and the first group to be forced out of a job would be international students, especially those who are not fluent in English!

Despite such tactics, the GEO emerged victorious.  Yet despite the GEO’s mandate to pressure the administration for recognition, to this day the administration refuses to recognize the democratic right of its grad employees to unionize.

What Next?

The graduate employees are intensifying their campaign to gain voluntary recognition from the administration and the Board of Trustees.  As one grad employee put it, “We aren’t asking for what we are worth; we are asking for the right to talk about it!”

There are weekly marches to the office of the Chancellor, where the GEO invites the administration to bargain.  Also, the GEO is actively pursuing solidarity with other unions.  This is a point of particular interest to the GEO since many activists feel that it would be a mistake to allow the grad union to become isolated from the struggles of the labor movement in central Illinois.  Additionally, the struggle has penetrated the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, where a group of activists has set up the UIC-GEO.

The GEO has also launched a campaign to inform the general public of the situation and to ask for solidarity.  The best way one can help the grad employees at the University of Illinois is to contact the administration and to demand that the university recognize the democratic right of graduate employees to unionize. 

We would encourage you to write to 

Chancellor Michael Aiken 
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 
601 E. John Street 
Champaign, IL 61820 

or fax to 217-244-4121. 

Please send a copy of your letter to the GEO at:

1001 S. Wright Street 
Champaign, IL 61820 
(fax 217-333-3072) 

or e-mail GEO at 

You may visit the GEO webpage at 

Dennis Grammenos is a doctoral candidate in geography and a graduate student employee at the University of Illinois.  He is currently treasurer of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

ATC 71, November-December 1997