GEO protests at U of I Beginning to demand a living wage: Opinion: Smile politely

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, members of the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) demonstrated at the launch ceremony. GEO members held up a large banner in the stands of Memorial Stadium that read, “Hey Andreas, why don’t you pay us?” The wages of poverty are the graduate workers of Killeen. Fair contract now!”

After just 5 minutes, U of I security at Memorial Stadium forced GEO members to remove the sign or have it confiscated. Security said the banner was in violation of Memorial Stadium’s “no banner policy.” However, no similar action was taken against family members and visitors who brought signs to greet graduating students.

GEO is currently in the midst of contract negotiations, and this protest was a response to the Island University administration’s dismissal of graduate worker concerns. After two months of negotiations, the administration has failed to present a comprehensive contract proposal that addresses the workers’ main material concerns: wages and economic benefits.

GEO Co-Chair-elect Karla Sanabria-Véaz said, “It is unacceptable that during record inflation, the university administration has shown very little interest in our economic proposal. On May 11, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics report an 8.3% increase in the consumer price index for all goods and services compared to the previous year. The current minimum salary for a teaching assistant (TA) or graduate assistant (GA) is $19,300 for a 9-month contract, with no guarantees of summer employment or healthcare. However, according to MITa living wage for a single adult in Champaign County is over $30,000 before taxes, and is even higher for graduate workers with families and dependents.

During his keynote address, Timothy L. Killeen, president of the U of I system, said that “At the heart of it all, the University of Illinois system exists to serve you, each of you, our students”. GEO calls on the administration of the entire U of I system to translate these words into action by fairly compensating graduate workers, who play a crucial role in the teaching and research of this university.

In addition to ignoring the material needs of graduate workers, the administration of the University of India has tried to silence graduate workers who talk about the need for a fair contract. Unfortunately, forcing GEO to remove its early protest banner was just the latest in a series of administrative actions aimed at suppressing the graduate worker protest.

Both threats from the police and the disciplinary process of the university administration have been used to suppress the professional activity of graduates. The GEO notes that this censorship is very characteristic of the administration of the U of I, as it has has relied on policing, surveillance and other punitive measures to silence workers and students on its campus dating back at least to the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

During the GEO strike in 2018, the police were stationed at all entrances to the Swanlund Administration Building when graduates occupied the building, and Andreas Cangellaris, Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Rector of the University, taught students a campus-wide message contact the University of Illinois Police Department if they “have any concerns or encounter any difficulties” during the strike.

New campus expressive activity policy under review could allow the U of I administration to silence student and community dissent by restricting protest locations and the use of megaphones. The policy also limits protests to the Alma Mater statue by stating that actions must not interfere with potential photo opportunities. The new policy expands the definition of “disruptive conduct,” undermining the right of graduate workers to protest. GEO will continue to challenge the abuse of power by university administration by pushing for additional protections for industrial action.

During his commencement address, Chancellor Robert J. Jones said the U of I campus was one of the safest places in the country, if not the world, during the pandemic. However, the administration has repeatedly ignored graduate workers’ concerns about accessibility testing, remote work options and health coverage. Wellness Support Associates (WSA).

As GEO pointed out in both the impact negotiation and the full contract negotiation, the administration’s pandemic security measures are uneven, do not take into account the diversity of working conditions and do not fail to center the voices of people with disabilities and immunocompromises in the U of I community.

Just two days before the start, the administration announcement that face coverings would be optional for in-person summer classes. Since May 18, the The average 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate on campus is 4.17%, there have been 248 cases in the last 7 days, and a new Omicron sub-variant, BA 2.12.1, is poised to become mainstream in the United States. Since May 20, Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department shared that Champaign County is now at high transmission rates and recommends masking up indoors. Masks have been very effective in reducing transmission, so this new decision demonstrates that the U of I administration is in fact not committed to making the campus the safest place in the state, let alone of the country or the world.

GEO will continue to exercise its right to industrial action until we receive a fair and comprehensive contract that truly serves graduate workers.

To demand that the administration protect its workers and students by restoring the mask requirement for face-to-face classes, sign this petition. If you would like to know more about these issues, please contact GEO at [email protected].

Megan Mericle is a UIUC graduate in Writing Studies and Communications Officer for GEO.

Top image of GEO members in front of Memorial Stadium on May 14, 2022. Photo by Megan Mericle.

Michael A. Bynum