The courageous struggle of more than 1,500 graduate student workers in their second week of strike action at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) against poverty wages imposed by the Democratic Party-backed administration is now at a critical turning point.
On Monday, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), announced bargaining updates that indicate the strike may end prematurely without any of the critical demands of the graduate students are met.
The GEO noted on Monday: “We have never been on strike for the sake of being on strike. It’s always been about getting a fair contract, and we’ve worked hard to reach an agreement. … We believe we are close to settling this contract. The GEO negotiations update then suggested it conceded the university’s goals of keeping graduate workers burdened with poverty wages, as well as concessions on health care and fees.
GEO is also trying to redirect the attention of striking graduate students to unsuccessful appeals to the Democratic Party. He published an open letter to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, which reads: “We are increasingly concerned that the intransigence and recklessness of university administration will cause serious damage long-term to the learning conditions of our students and to the reputation of the university. As a champion of workers’ rights and higher education, and as Chief Executive of the State, we implore you to take action to ensure that UIC becomes a more attractive institution for work and study.
GEO claims to have agreed to a salary of $22,590 in the first year, an increase of approximately $1,975. The university is offering $23,040 and $23,500 in the second and third years of the contract, an annual increase of 2% after the first year. The GEO proposed $23,945 and $25,382 for subsequent years.
But graduate students are currently demanding a living wage, and GEO’s proposal falls far short of what is needed to live in Chicago. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, it takes more than $36,470 in pre-tax income for a childless adult to live in Chicago.
Graduate students who applied to the World Socialist Website last week about working two to three jobs just to make ends meet, while others struggled with the high cost of housing and rent in Chicago.
Another UIC graduate student described his conditions on Reddit in response to the WSWS report, clarifying the poverty conditions faced by teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs). “The raises help students who don’t qualify for the (albeit meager) benefits provided by assistant and adviser positions. Hourly graduate positions do not allow you to work full-time, thus preventing you from receiving full-time benefits.
“Also, although doctoral students make up a large portion of UIC graduate students, there are people like me in non-doctoral programs who do not receive tuition funding.
“I agree that $26 is a great hourly rate, but teaching assistants are technically salaried part-timers. When I worked as a TA, I was assigned a position of .375 (equal to a 15 hour work week) and regularly exceeded it, as I worked hours beyond that to assist my students in a 6 hour course of credit. We are not entitled to overtime and we were not entitled to benefits.
“Almost every non-doctoral student I know has at least two jobs, possibly more unpaid work given the research requirements for my particular degree.”
The GEO added that, for health care and fees, the UIC would only cover 25% of health care costs for dependents of graduate workers. Graduate students will also have to pay $260 per semester in health care costs for the first year, according to UIC’s proposal, and more than $285 the following year.
On the charges, GEO added, “In a show of good faith, we took them at their word and reduced the international fee by $65 and removed reference to tuition differentials” (emphasis added). But there’s no reason for graduates to take the university at its word. For its part, the UIC administration brazenly maintained that there was no money to provide a substantial raise for graduate workers. According to the GEO, the UIC’s chief negotiator defiantly warned the striking students: “I never promise you that the university will pay you enough to cover all your financial needs.”
Under these conditions, GEO demands will not meet the needs of graduate students as prices rise and the Federal Reserve seeks to target workers’ growing demands for higher wages by raising interest rates.
If graduates accept the framework set by the administration, they will effectively take a pay cut, as prices continue to rise and inflation has already soared to 8.5% this year. This would mean that graduating students would have to drop out of school and find new jobs to survive or face extraordinary financial hardship if they work under these conditions.
The claim that there is no money to fund education and raise wages for graduate workers by the UIC bargaining team is a fraud. The companies are making record profits, and more than eight of Illinois’ largest companies alone, including Walgreens, McDonalds, Caterpillar, John Deere and others, have made more than $61.4 billion in profits since 2020. Meanwhile, while corporate profits have remained intact, Illinois has cut funding for education by more than 47% since 2000 after adjusting for inflation, according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.
Throughout the strike, the AFT isolated striking graduate students, who had to beg GoFundMe for strike pay, despite the union controlling more than $155 million in assets and selling all major teacher strikes since 2018. AFT did nothing. mobilize UIC professors on campus or Chicago teachers behind the graduates.
Graduate workers face not only the betrayal of the AFT, which has prevented a broader struggle by educators from developing, but also the Democratic Party and the business and financial elite who run the board of directors of the ‘UIC, which oversaw the imposition of poverty wages on striking UIC workers. with the help of SEIU in 2020. UIC’s board of directors includes billionaire Democratic Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, who has seen his fortune increase by $200 million since the start of the pandemic.
To meet their needs, UIC graduate students are expected to demand an immediate 40-50% increase in salaries, with annual cost-of-living expenses indexed to inflation. Health care should be fully funded for graduate students and their dependents, and all fees should be eliminated with a significant reduction in tuition for graduate students and UIC undergraduates.
The struggle of graduate students against unbearable salaries, inflation and exploitation by the administration is not just a trivial contractual struggle. It is part of a global wave of opposition against impossible social conditions, including soaring prices for food, gasoline, housing and basic necessities, triggered by the pandemic and the deadly war campaign. between the United States and NATO against Russia. This means that UIC graduate students have powerful allies all over the world.
Looking outward for support and smashing attempts to end the strike means taking the conduct of the strike out of the hands of the AFT and the workers themselves forming an independent rank-and-file strike committee. This committee would mobilize UIC workers, undergraduates, and faculty to shut down the campus and call on Chicago teachers, autoworkers, logisticians, and others to support their struggle and make it strong. spearheading a broader counter-offensive for better wages and working conditions.
Contact the WSWS today to learn more about forming a rank-and-file strike committee among UIC graduate workers.