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Vol. 2, No. 3


GEO Throws Down the Gauntlet

Letters From Readers

Public Interest Angels Descend on FCC

85% Coalition Fights for 100% Equality Under Law

My Brief Foray into Capitolism

Good to the Last Drop?
Crisis for Coffee Growers Mandates Consumer Responsibility

Earth Day These Days

The Ogoni Struggle in Nigeria

April Brings Showers of Local Arts


April IMC Calendar


GEO Throws Down the Gauntlet
by Ben Scott
The events of March 13, 2002, marked a sea change in the movement for labor rights at the University of Illinois, led by the actions of the Graduate Employeesí Organization (GEO). At 7:45 that morning, forty-one GEO members and supporters entered Swanlund Administration Building to stage a peaceful protest. Within minutes, the activists occupied the building and blocked the doorways, preventing any further access by university staff or administrators. They ran through the halls, distributing chocolates and statements of purpose to individuals already at their desks, including Chancellor Nancy Cantor and Vice Chancellor Charles Colbert.
During the first hour, tension levels escalated as administrators scrambled to assess the situation and decide upon a course of action. By 9 a.m., Chancellor Cantor and the remaining Swanlund workers had departed to makeshift workspaces in other buildings. Their departure was serenaded by the chanting of the picket line, the contingent of GEO activists who had not entered the building. Armed with a megaphone, a guitar, and sloganed placards, these supporters kept up a marching public presence on the sidewalk in front of Swanlund throughout the day.
"Our demand was simple," recalled GEO Co-President Uma Pimplaskar in a speech at the GEO membership meeting of March 27. "ìThe administration should negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the GEO that respects the express wishes of graduate employees for union representation." After eight years of organizing and agitating, a lengthy and ongoing legal battle with the university, a walkout, and a previous sit-in, GEO members had opted for direct action and meant to stand firm behind their commitments.
When two officers of the University Police (a unionized organization) arrived and informed the protesters that they would soon be removed from the building, this resolve seemed likely to be tested. At 10 a.m., supporters rallied on the steps of Swanlund. GEO members were joined by undergraduates, faculty, staff, community labor representatives, and religious leaders. Speeches in support of the sit-in were delivered to a chorus of cheers, both outside and inside the building as the occupying group crowded to the doors to listen.
It was generally expected that confrontation was imminent. However, by 11 a.m., all was still quiet. The police officers now reported that the administration had changed its mind. By early afternoon, there still had been no word from the administration. Those sitting in prepared not for the arrest they had initially expected, but for an extended stay at Swanlund. The atmosphere remained upbeat throughout the afternoon, despite the absence of any credible indication of what was to come.
At 4 p.m., Provost Richard Herman arrived on the scene to deliver a statement to the protesters. Though he intended to enter, he was persuaded to read the statement aloud from the steps of the building. In a move that took the assembled crowd completely by surprise, Provost Herman indicated that the university was now ready to engage in discussions with the GEO over the size of the bargaining unit to be submitted for Labor Board approval and an eventual election. As Uma Pimplaskar recalled, "We were just stunned."
The GEO had good reason to be stunned. For nearly seven years, the university has preferred to go to court rather than engage in discussion with GEO representatives. Moreover, the size of the bargaining unit -the number of graduate employees (teaching, research, and graduate assistants) eligible to join a union according to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board - has been a central point of contention. Primarily, the debate over who qualifies as an employee hinges on the type of labor performed. GEO has argued that all graduate students who receive a paycheck from the university for services rendered should have the right to unionize. The university prefers to characterize graduate labor as part of the educational experience, an apprenticeship of sorts that prepares future teachers and researchers for careers in the field.
GEO has rightly noted that the position of the Board of Trustees denies the emergent logic of university administrations around the country: "corporatization." It is no longer even seriously disputed that fiscal concerns and the pursuit of profit are the prime movers in the booming education industry of the "New Economy". Public budget cuts, heavy investment from the private sector, micro-management of intellectual property, disproportionate financing of profitable disciplines, exclusive product licensing agreements, concentration of resources on high-profile athletic programs, and the "branding" of university monikers for sales promotion are now familiar trends on campus. In the classroom, the number of students is rising faster than tuition rates, while the number of expensive tenured faculty positions is plummeting. More and more, universities are dependent on the labor of non-tenured faculty, adjunct lecturers, and above all graduate students (who earn one-quarter to one-tenth the salary of a tenured faculty member) to conduct the education of undergraduate "clients." However, the ranks of graduate students swelling to meet these labor demands are confronted upon graduation by a declining number of available faculty positions - a serious Catch-22.
Small wonder that grad students across the nation are unionizing, rejecting the label of apprentice and demanding recognition as paid labor. Over thirty campuses across the country currently have graduate employee unions, including New York University and the Universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, and California. Small wonder also that the GEO has rejected the university legal teamís argument that only 300 of the 5,500 grad employees qualify for a union bargaining unit. And so the debate has raged for years without formal negotiations ñ that is, until Provost Herman walked to the entrance of Swanlund Administration Building on March 13 and stated the administrationís readiness to talk.
During the next ninety minutes, GEO leaders took stock of the situation. They had potentially just been handed the biggest victory in the history of the organization. But agreeing to talk to the GEO was hardly agreeing to recognize the GEO, and those sitting in were wary of abandoning their position of negotiating strength without adequate assurances. It was also known, however, that the Board of Trustees was in town the very body which had pressured its administrators not to deal with graduate unions. Television and newspaper reporters had been around the scene all day, including those from both Chicago dailies. There was reason to believe that a turning point was at hand.
At 5:30 p.m., Provost Herman was escorted with his attorney to his own conference room on the second floor of Swanlund, now decorated with a GEO banner. GEO presented a counterproposal, developed on the fly after hasty phone calls to legal counsel, which included specific time lines for the proffered discussions and expected outcomes for union recognition. Uma Pimplaskar recalled the sentiment at the bargaining table:
"After waiting eight years for some compromise with the University, weíd be damned if we would let them get away with fuzzy timelines and half promises." Four hours later an agreement was reached, and ratified by the occupants of the building. The Provost stated that it was not the sit-in which had prompted this turnabout in administration policy, but that he would appreciate it if GEO would clear out of the building. The agreement, written longhand on a yellow legal pad, reads as follows:
"The University and the GEO will meet at least once a week beginning March 29, 2002, with a goal of reaching an agreement by April 28, 2002 on the composition of a bargaining unit. The parties hope that substantial progress will be made by April 15, 2002 so that said progress can be communicated to the various constituencies. The final agreement would be jointly submitted to the Labor Board to certify a bargaining unit and conduct an election."
The GEO is now hopeful that the upcoming series of negotiations with the university will produce a bargaining unit acceptable both to the GEO membership and to the Labor Board. The years of work in pursuit of smaller class sizes, better training, reasonable wages, fair workloads, better health care, and the genuine respect of the university community may finally come to fruition in the form of a recognized union.
In larger terms, many GEO activists view this struggle as the beginning of a counter-offensive against the forces of privatization that threaten to commodify public education. A union that redresses the atomization and exploitation of graduate labor is an integral part of the larger progressive movement for a public-spirited society. GEO is drawing a line in the sand around the sanctity of education: this far and no farther. Solidarity.

The author owes a great debt to the detailed recollections of March 13 presented in the March 27 speech by GEO Co-President Uma Pimplaskar.
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