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Illinois-Grad Students Strike

Jaime Cohen, 25, center, rallies with the Graduate Employees Organization on Monday at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, representing about 2,700 graduate student workers who are on strike.

URBANA — University of Illinois graduate student workers went on strike Monday after last-minute negotiations over the weekend failed to end a protracted contract dispute that has lasted nearly a year.

Leaders of the Graduate Employees' Organization, representing around 2,700 graduate and teaching assistants on the Urbana-Champaign campus, set up picket lines at buildings around the Main Quad around 8 a.m. A few hundred people gathered for a midday rally

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reported some undergraduate classes were canceled or moved to buildings away from picketing. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said administrators didn't immediately know how many classes had been canceled. If any classes are canceled, it will be up to department leadership to reschedule or make up missed sessions.

The union has been without a contract since August. The union and administration have met for two dozen bargaining sessions and 14 mediation sessions since March 2017, including two on Friday and Sunday, to no avail.

A main point of contention is the role of tuition waivers for graduate students.

The previous union contract, which lasted from August 2012 to August 2017, stipulated that qualifying graduate and teaching assistants would not have tuition waivers reduced as long as they remained in good academic standing and made acceptable progress toward their degrees.

The union wants to maintain that provision as is. The university wants to be able to adjust the tuition waiver program for budgetary and programming reasons in the future, though school leaders say any such changes would not affect the waiver terms in place for students already enrolled.

Union leaders argue the university's proposal would essentially would force graduate students to pay more to continue their studies, an untenable situation for many. About 69 percent of union members have graduate and teaching assistant programs and receive some form of tuition waivers, according to the university's human resources website.

"Taking away our tuition waivers may have forced us to this point, but our fight goes well beyond that," Gus Wood, union co-president, said in a statement. "This is a fight for the soul of public higher education."

The two sides also have not reached an agreement on issues such as pay raises and child care.

Urbana-Champaign Provost Andreas Cangellaris said in a statement that university leadership was "extremely disappointed" about the decision to strike and that the university made significant efforts to meet many of the union's demands, including tuition waivers, wages and higher coverage on health insurance premiums.

"We've listened to the concerns of the GEO," Cangellaris said. "We've made generous and serious proposals that address those concerns. We are ready to resume the bargaining process and we hope we will reach an agreement that ends the strike as quickly as possible."

As the strike began Monday, Wood marched throughout the quad with a bullhorn, cheering on the picketers and urging passing students to support the union members in their efforts. Shuttle bus drivers passing by on Wright Street honked their horns and held up fists to show support for the union members.

Wood said he felt the university was refusing "to support the financial sustainability" of its graduate and teaching assistants.

"When we were brought here, we were told we would be part of something great," said Wood. "And then they tell us we're not worth enough to have secure living conditions. It's heartbreaking that we have to be out here on strike but we're doing this because we know we can make this place better."

The strike is open-ended, Wood said, until they receive a satisfactory contract.

The union is seeking 8 percent boosts to minimum assistantship salaries plus 4 percent annual raises over the life of the contract. The administration has proposed a 4 percent raise in the first year and 1.5 percent increases in the remaining years of a five-year contract, according to the university's human resources department website. Reappointed graduate employees would receive a 3 percent raise in the first year.

Union members also are seeking a monthly child care subsidy for parents. The university is not proposing any contractual terms for child care coverage.

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