The University administration is circulating its GEO Negotiations FAQ on its HR page to both faculty and undergraduate students. Much of their language is misleading, inaccurate, and misrepresentative of both the current fiscal realities faced by graduate students and the implications of their desired change to the tuition waiver side letter. Some of these inaccuracies are as follows:
1.) The University makes the claim that our average compensation in wages is equivalent to earning $23.87 an hour. They neglect to mention that the majority of us are limited to working to a maximum twenty hours a week, and that our working period is usually limited to nine months out of the year. Most of us are not paid during the months of June, July, and August. Making up these disparities is difficult-to-impossible. Graduate students are expected to conduct research, attend classes, and/or write in addition to the duties related to their appointment, most of which are unrelated to their academic progress. Carrying a second job in addition to both an active appointment and a vital academic career is next-to-impossible. Summer labor is also difficult to find; while some of us are able to scrape together minimal summer funding—or are lucky enough to land appointments that extend over the summer—the vast majority of us must look for work or save during the rest of the year. Finding such work is difficult—there is high demand in Chambana for relatively few seasonal jobs.
The situation for international students is even more dire. Most international students cannot legally work for anyone other than the university while they are in the US, meaning that University funding is the only source of income available to them while they are earning their degrees. Even if they want to look for off-campus work, their visas won’t allow it. They are entirely dependent upon the University for funding.
Under this reality—that are only able to work for twenty hours a week for only nine months out of the year--the “average” bargaining unit member would still be earning more than three-thousand dollars less than the University’s own calculated cost of living. For those of us earning less than the average—which is, of course, a significant portion of the bargaining unit—this disparity can be more than doubled. The minimum compensation for a 50% assistantship is $16,360 a year, approximately six-thousand dollars less than the University’s own stated cost of living.
2.) The University fails to take into account unavoidable fees when calculating our effective compensation. This is where we can talk numbers. Let’s take a nice, round number of $17,000.00/year—which is, again, more than the minimum amount paid by many assistantships. The University claims that it pays 72% of all fees; based on the numbers given by the University on that same page—namely, that “GEO members are exempt from having to pay $2,395 in fees each year—it stands to reason that GEO members pay approximately $931 dollars in fees each year. Our effective compensation can therefore be decreased by that amount. Additionally, the University does not cover summer health insurance costs; the cost of continuing the coverage over the summer is $409. Assume that our individual chooses to maintain health insurance coverage over the summer, in accordance with current ACA mandates. This means that the member’s effective compensation is reduced by $1,340 dollars per year. This gives us an actual compensation—before taxes and other insurance deductions, mind you—of $15,660 per year. Someone who is working full-time (40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year) at a minimum wage job—a situation that the University uses as an example by which to positively compare our own compensation—would earn $16,500 per year. This further undermines their favorable comparison of our compensation to the minimum wage.
3.) The University still maintains that it is increasing coverage on the health insurance premium whilst asking for language that would serve as an effective cap on their contributions in the face of rising insurance costs.
4.) The University continues to argue against the abolishment of our remaining fees and ignores requests for a child care subsidy, offering instead access to a website that helps parents find childcare resources. Providing access to a website does not ease the significant financial burden that childcare presents to graduate students with children.
5.) The University then goes on to discuss our benefits and our compensation. This section seems to be almost intentionally misleading. It lists access to McKinley and athletic facilities such as the ARC and CRCE separately from our waived fees; it does not explicitly state the fact that those waived fees cover, amongst other items, access to those facilities. More concerningly, the University continues to include tuition waivers in its calculations of compensation. This is misleading at best and outright contradictory at worst. Tuition waivers cannot be counted towards the cost of living for the simple fact that graduate students cannot live off of them. Tuition waivers cannot by used to pay for rent, for groceries, or for electricity.
6.) Counting tuition waivers as compensation for the purposes of inflating our apparent compensation is even more misleading and meaningless when those waivers are no longer a guarantee to all students. The University wishes to abolish the language in the current contract’s side letter which guarantees tuition waivers to individuals performing bargaining unit waiver. This means that even as they claim the existence of tuition waivers as “proof” that our bargaining unit members are well-compensated, they seek to strip away the language that guarantees the continuation of that compensation.
7.) The University claims that their proposed change to tuition waivers would not affect existing students. They state:
“The University does not intend to alter the tuition waiver support that assistants received at the outset of their academic program (as identified by the graduate program code) while they: remain in that academic program, hold qualifying assistantships, are in good academic standing and are making proper progress toward graduation in the program in which they began.”
Leaving aside the qualifications here—that individuals remain in their academic program, that they are making “proper progress”, that qualifying assistantships remain available, and that a statement of intent on a website is not legally-binding language—this leaves the door open to the future abolition of tuition waivers. Functionally, this means that two individuals who are performing the same labor could be compensated very differently depending on when they entered the university and what program they are enrolled in.
Even if we assume that this statement is made in good faith—that the University will not abolish tuition waivers for any currently enrolled graduate student (despite the above-listed qualifications)—this means that future graduate students may face a very different financial landscape.
8.) The University claims in several places that they do not have the money—or, alternately, the authorization for the money—to meet our non-tuition waiver demands. This is not the case. Covering the changes that we currently propose to our contract would cost the university less than 2% of what the proposed Illini Union renovation would cost, or a little over double the current combined annual salary of their ten-person bargaining team. This leaves us with the implication that the sticking point isn’t an increase in our direct benefits, but that it is instead a desire to fundamentally change how graduate education works.
It seems that we need to look towards their sudden, stark refusal to guarantee tuition waivers in order to understand their true objectives. Based upon this, it appears as though the University’s goal is to entirely remake the University and its graduate programs in the image of profit rather than scholarship. If the university really wanted to reaffirm its “mission of teaching”, as it claims in its section addressing the impact of a potential strike upon students, it would ensure that it brought in the best and brightest scholars regardless of their ability to finance their own graduate education. It would ensure that graduate students come from a diverse set of backgrounds, enriching the academic fabric of its university. It would not seek to limit graduate programs—either in whole or in part—to those students who can afford to pay in order to work in a job that doesn’t even cover their cost of living.
All of this isn’t just inaccurate; it’s insulting. It’s being disseminated to our students, to faculty, and to the department heads that control our academic fate. It’s attempting to make us look like petulant children who are challenging an already generous agreement. We aren’t. We are labor. We teach your students, we run your libraries, we help publish your journals. We facilitate research. We are as much the university as the administration. And, most importantly, we believe deeply in the University’s mission of education and research. We want what’s best not just for ourselves, but for the future of graduate programs and overall scholastic excellence at the University of Illinois.