UIC grad students on the picket line Credit: Photo by Dawn Tefft, courtesy UIC GEO

4/5 Update: Graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago suspended their strike today, after reaching a settlement with the school’s administration that will allow them to make up hours lost during the strike, which began March 19. According to their union, the Graduate Employees Organization, they’ve reached a tentative contract agreement that includes, among other things, a 14 percent salary increase over three years and relief from fee increases, along with reductions in health care costs. GEO members will return to work on Monday, and could ratify the contract as early as next week.

Late last year, University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis presented an ambitious update to the 50-year master plan for the UIC campus.

For its current phase, over the next ten years, the plan calls for multiple new buildings and an emphasis on turning the fortress-like environment of architect Walter Netsch’s once-celebrated 1960s “Brutalist” design into a friendlier space. As a first step, Amiridis said in a television interview, UIC will be getting rid of walls along Harrison and Halsted streets that isolate the campus from the city.

The price tag? A cool billion dollars for starters, some of it to be raised through private- public partnerships and the sale of bonds guaranteed, in part, by revenue from student fees.

On March 19, after a year of unsuccessful contract negotiations, UIC’s 1,500 graduate student workers went on strike. They’re seeking a salary increase and fee relief.

The graduate employees are currently paid about $18,000 a year and given free tuition for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks. UIC Graduate Employees Organization co- president Jeff Schuhrke says teaching assistants are often the primary instructors in undergraduate classes of up to 60 students. At UIC and elsewhere, this arrangement is justified as an apprenticeship, but it’s long been exploited to the university’s advantage.

GEO is asking for a significant raise: 22.6 percent over three years. Schuhrke, who notes that “we can’t pay rent or buy food with a tuition waiver,” said in an interview last week that this would just bring UIC closer to the salaries paid by other major urban research universities. That’s an observation backed up by letters of support from faculty, noting the increasing difficulty of recruiting talented graduate students.

UIC says it has offered a raise of 11.95 percent over three years.

In a letter to the campus community, posted on the first day of the strike, the administration offered this rationale: “When you annualize [the current salary], from 9 months to 12 months and equate it to full time at 40 hours per week, plus the value of the tuition waivers, it is akin to a salary of $62,375 per year.”

GEO is also concerned about rising fees that it says now amount to as much as $2,000 annually. These include a fee that singles out international students, whose visas, Schuhrke notes, don’t allow them to seek outside work. (How important are international students to the finances of the University of Illinois system? It was revealed last fall that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is now paying $424,000 annually for a $60 million insurance policy that protects it against a drop in enrollment of business and engineering students from China.)

Then there’s the hefty “General Fee,” applied to all students; it’s increasing $50 per semester, to $962 for the next two-semester academic year. According to the university website, the General Fee supports the fixed costs “of operating fee-supported facilities on campus,” including housing.

In a statement posted on the university’s website on Monday, Michael Ginsburg, the associate vice chancellor for human resources said, “The University cannot waive these fees because there is no source of funds which could be used to make up for the loss of revenue.”

According to the administration, UIC intends to “continue normal operations during the strike.”

UIC faculty union president Janet Smith says that while campus improvements are needed, there’s a question of priorities. “It’s a bigger problem than just UIC,” Smith says. “We’re part of the University of Illinois system, and what we see is that the system is very keen about real estate development, and not so much about putting money into salaries or helping support students.”

“The whole UI system announced that they weren’t going to raise tuition again, for the fifth year in a row,” Smith continues. “That sounds great. But what happens is they raise fees. The day they announced they weren’t going to raise tuition, our chancellor announced that they were going to raise fees by 3.6 percent. On top of that, most students pay, in addition to tuition and fees, a differential. In my department [Smith teaches in the department of urban planning], students pay another $2,500 per semester, just to go to school.” (Graduate school differentials range next year from $383 to $5,147 per semester.)

“If they don’t raise the pay for student workers, if they don’t raise the pay for faculty, they’re going to have some nice buildings, but they’re not going to have the same people teaching in them,” Smith says. “Faculty are thinking they might leave, and graduate students are not coming to UIC because they don’t get offered a salary that’s competitive with other research I universities.”

“We’re fighting against the idea that grad school is some kind of hazing ritual as opposed to real life,” said Schuhrke in a statement released by GEO. “We’re professionals, often with years of experience and master’s degrees. We provide essential labor for UIC.”   v