Graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are voting on whether or not to authorize a strike after negotiations with university officials over a living wage fell short of their demands Wednesday night, according to members of the Graduate Employees Organization.
The voting process to authorize a possible strike began Thursday and will continue through Monday, which is the end of the union's next bargaining session with UIC's administration.
“I don’t think most of our members want to strike," said Neri Sandoval, a graduate assistant in UIC's Department of African-American Studies. "I think it’s something that, I believe, is an outcome of a series of events the university has led to."
The strike authorization vote comes after nearly a year of slow contract bargaining with a reluctant administration, union members said. It formally filed its intent to strike on April 5.
Becky Bivens, an art history teaching assistant who sits on the union's marketing committee, said UIC lists on its own financial aid website that the cost of living in Chicago every year is about $17,950, yet some graduate workers get paid just a little more than $14,000.
Bivens said she gets paid $14,565, but that's before tuition differentials and general fees.
She said she pays an $1,800 tuition differential per semester, which "they don’t tell you when you're admitted."
A tuition differential is a fee paid in addition to base tuition in order to participate in a particular degree program at UIC, according to the university's website.
"The tuition differential is kind of a sneaky way to charge tuition anyway," Bivens explained.
On top of the tuition fee, Bivens said she also pays an $850 general fee per year.
"Nobody knows where (the money) goes," Bivens said. "It’s a huge problem with institutional transparency."
Graduate students also have to pay for books, materials, and other life expenses, putting many of the workers below the poverty line, union members said.
When asked what wage the union members have asked for, Bivens responded, "We want to keep a mobile target, because we're bargaining in packages, but we do take seriously that number that the university itself publishes.”
The union, made up of more than 1,400 graduate workers who teach about 60 percent of all classes at UIC, are calling on the university to freeze the tuition differentials, and they don’t want to pay the general fee, Bivens said.
Sandoval said the union also wants a three-year contract, while the university said it would agree to a four-year contract.
A three-year contract is not too much to ask, Sandoval added.
"We’ve been having three-year contracts for the majority of our history as a union,” he explained.
Under the university's proposed four-year contract, master's students in particular would be at a disadvantage, he said.
"They only have two years to get their degree, so it would cycle two different master’s students in and out before they even get to see the bargaining table, which is also a problem," Sandoval said.
The university did compromise with the union Wednesday night regarding the worker's health care coverage, Bivens said.
Previously, the university covered $125 of the workers' approximate $400 health care bill each semester, but Bivens said the university's payment doesn't account for increased health care costs.
The union called for the university to pay a percentage of their health bill per semester as opposed to the flat $125. The university agreed Wednesday to switch to a percentage, Bivens said, but the specifics are still being negotiated.
"They made a little bit of progress, but they're well below paying us a living wage, and the behavior in the bargaining room suggest[ed] that they don’t take us seriously," Bivens said.
Bill Burton, a UIC campus spokesman, said the two sides have made "good progress" so far.
“The two sides are still negotiating,” he said. “We’re hopeful of a successful outcome.”
Whether or not a strike actually happens is contingent on the extent to which the university meets the union's demands, Bivens said.
If Monday's bargaining goes well, and the strike authorization vote passes, the union's strike committee can take a reasonable offer from the university back to the membership for approval. But if the university doesn't make a reasonable offer, the committee can suggest a strike.
“I hope we don’t have to strike,” Bivens added.