Saturday, October 1, 2011

Grad assistants vote to authorize strike

So far, each union local to vote has trumped the last in both turn-out and support for strike authorization. The latest is GAU, which had a 88% voter turnout (late on a Friday afternoon) and a 97% yes vote.  Kristi Brownfield, a GAU stalwart who deserves much of the credit for this vote, reports the details on Unions United. They also signed up 54 new members on Friday alone. I don't have total numbers for GAU membership (and will go ahead and agree that the unions ought to be less coy about this), but 54 new members in one day shows that there's considerable upside potential there.

I don't know about you, but I think that authorizing a strike takes a good deal of guts if you are a GA. GAs obviously depend on their stipends to put food on the table. And while the rest of us may have been in Southern Illinois long enough to develop networks of friends and family to help support us should we need to miss a paycheck, most GAs will not have done so.

The Southern prints numbers given to them by the administration, which counted all of 77 dues-paying members in July, but that number has obviously risen. There are obvious hurdles to getting GAs to join, among them the fact that a big chunk of the something like 1750 GAs on campus each year are new to the job. The local has only just received contact information for new GAs. Many GAs are just learning that they are represented by a union--this isn't information the university deigns to share with them at orientation, from what I understand.

Plus you've got to face the fact that at least some of your professors aren't union friendly; that the chair who is your ultimate boss is classified as an administrator, and hence part of the team that is supposed to be working to plan how to negate the effect of a strike (though of course many chairs are sympathetic to the union cause), etc. Dues aren't extravagantly high, but you're trying to live on a very low stipend every dollar counts (and your earnings so far this semester haven't yet amounted to a year's worth in fees). The pressure to just sit on the sidelines and not join is tremendous.

Would the unions be stronger with more dues-paying members? Yes. So you can argue that lower membership makes them weak. But relatively low membership is largely a result of the way Illinois law works--allowing for people to elect to form a union and then elect not to join, to support a union with their vote to certify it but not to put their money where there vote is. And at least as important in judging the unions' strength is the trend in membership. If faculty, civil service, and GAs were indeed turning on their unions, we'd be seeing declining numbers. The fact that more are joining now--precisely when becoming a union member is generally going to mean that you are saying you are prepared to go on strike if it comes to that--is pretty powerful evidence, to my mind, that support for the unions on campus is growing.


  1. Thank you so much for your insight on the challenges of organizing graduate student, or as I call it, cat-herding. I had a feeling that the authorization would pass, but I was terribly concerned that the margin would be so small as to render the whole vote meaningless. I realized things were going our way when the first "no" vote was counted after more than 30 "yes" votes. Still, 97 percent, ask anyone who was there, I was stunned. Signing more than 50 new members in four hours, that still stuns me. We're going to have a picture taken of the university's receipt of the payroll authorization forms ;) There is definitely more to come, so stay tuned!

  2. The decline in grad student enrollment is being used by Rita to show how cash strapped SIUC is. Maybe a better insurance and lower fees would help.

  3. Can someone explain to me the type of coverage GAU is seeking? I read vague things in the newspaper about pre-existing conditions and dependents.

    Do they want "in" on the same type of CMS plans we have as faculty and staff? (Health Alliance, HealthLink)??

  4. Jon, you're better off asking them. But I saw sometime back a comparison with other peer institutions. Our health insurance for GAs is pretty nominal. My recollection is that other places may in fact charge somewhat higher fees for graduate student health, but deliver much better benefits. That is presumably the sort of deal GAU has in mind. Certainly the most valid comparison is with other plans for graduate students, not plans for full-time faculty and staff.

    For example, if SIUC cut the graduate student fee for intercollegiate athletics, they could use that money instead to fund much better health care for GAs. The one-semester fee for athletics (intercollegiate, not intermurals, rec center, etc.) is $292. Combined fees for health (on-campus health center plus health insurance) are $548 per semester. That is, without raising fees on students (or diverting money from anything other than intercollegiate sports), we could have more than 50% more to spend on GA health care.

    I suspect a survey of graduate students asking them if they'd rather have good health insurance or discount tickets to Saluki Athletics would produce a 97% positive vote, rather like the strike authorization vote.

    This is of course a pipe dream, as our peers and betters all charge such athletics fees. Ours may however be rather high; I just checked my alma mater, UNC, and found that their athletic fee is $271--per academic year!

    The other big GA issue is overall fees. Fees are becoming a higher and higher percentage of overall costs, and they aren't covered by tuition waivers.

  5. Here's what GA's get for their "health care":

    $1000 out of pocket
    No prescription drug benefit
    No spousal or dependent coverage
    No coverage for pre-existing conditions for one year
    No dental
    No vision

    GAU isn't asking for the same health care plan as the faculty and staff, and it doesn't take a lot of work to improve the "health care" we have right now. This is a plan that no one in the administration would have for their family members, yet it is good enough for us. I don't think so.

  6. I share some concerns with the ASCE, NTTFA, and FA, but I just don't get the GA issues. When I was a graduate assistant, I was happy to have a shared space to use and an assistantship. Now students expect offices with computers, health benefits for their dependents, and even dental and vision! Do you deserve retirement too?

  7. Again, we aren't asking for the same health care plan as the faculty and staff (heaven forbid!). We just want some improvement to the plan, such as it is. And yes, we do demand an office to work in, if that is appropriate to the situation. If that's too much for your outraged sensibilities, then so be it. Oh, and like many GA's I bring my own computer to work. It is faster, and less prone to viruses than the ones in the office.

  8. As a GA, my primary concern is the continual increases in the student fees, which we pay out of pocket. The administration seems to have to ability to raise them as much as they want and whenever they want. A 200% increase over the last few years has a lot of us worried that they could go up even more, making it financially unviable to even attend graduate school. Asking for a fee freeze for graduate students is not our way of trying to have it better than previous cohorts. It is our way of trying to ensure our situation doesn't get worse to the point that it is untenable.

  9. And what of the students without assistantships, whose fees have also gone up? You know, even Fellows have to pay fees. I don't understand what is unfair about that.

  10. Sure, it would nice to have a freeze--or better yet, a fee waiver--but when the fees go up for everyone across the board, I don't see what the issue is. It sounds like fair share to me. I've heard some colleagues call the fees "paying to work," but as I see it, I/we are fortunate to receive support as we pursue higher degrees. I don't like paying higher fees for gas and groceries either--or childcare (!!!). That's inflation.

  11. 200% is not inflation. It's price gouging.

  12. "Over the last few years." Hm, I wonder how much money the state owes SIUC if you include the same amount of time? A lot more than the amount covered by the fee increases, I'd wager. Mind you, I'm not a fan of the increases, but I think the office you should blame for that is in Springfield, not Carbondale.

  13. Nathaniel,

    Most of the fees are for non-academic services that the state will not pay for, no matter how much money the state provides. Take a look at the fee breakdown to see. A few of the fees, such as the Student Services Building Fee, and the Building Maintenance Fee are for things that the state or tuition could provide. Most of them (about 70% in my opinion) are for things such as athletic facilities and health insurance that the state will not and does not provide.

    About the academic services that are included in the fees, why were fees, rather than tuition, raised to pay for them?


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