Potential New Students, it’s Not What it Looks Like

The quad has always been a place of action on campus, but the recent Graduate Employees’ Organization strike has given these familiar early-springtime temperatures a different feel. With the GEO asking for protection of tuition waivers, an increase in graduate student minimum wage, and more, if not full, healthcare, it could be a while until we see another peaceful morning on the quad.

For some, the strike comes as no surprise. Olivia Welshans of the Daily Illini, reported on November 1 of last year that “Graduate Student workers could go on strike”, pointing out that the long process of agreeing on a contract “raised tensions across campus.” The Chicago Tribune, who’s office is 140 miles north of the quad, even reported on February 8th that the strike date had been set for February 26th.

For others, however, the picketers come as a very shocking and unpleasant sight. Around this time every year, students and faculty can regularly spot students clad in orange t-shirts, walking backward while giving campus tours to potential incoming students. For those high-school seniors, every detail of a campus visit is taken into account when decided where to enroll in the fall.

Ashley Ball, a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, is concerned about what the strikes mean about the future stability of the university and its staff.

“I’m just worried about issues such as this that could drive good teachers away from the U of I,” Ball said in an interview. “I’ve wanted to go here for a long time, but the strike just has me concerned.”

On-campus, current students are much less worried about what the strike means going forward; they’re just ready to get back to class.

Nathan Bannon, 19, is an undeclared freshman who is trying to transfer into the college of engineering. For him, the strike was a little more personal.

“My sister is a graduate student so I think they should be paid accordingly to the effort they put in,” Bannon said.

Classes have not yet been canceled, with the possibility of professors moving their classes to non-picketed buildings.

Undergraduate Participation Critical in GEO Strike

As the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) strike extends into it’s second week, many University undergraduates are suffering the consequences of cancelled or interrupted classes.

Although the strike mainly concerns the well being graduate students and teaching assistants, some undergraduates, like Heather Aubry, chose to show support and solidarity by joining the picket line.

“You see how powerful it is once you’re there,” said Aubry, a sophomore studying anthropology, “the amount of people that come out to causes like this and are completely invested and passionate about it, you see it in everyone’s faces and its intoxicating.”

Aubry was encouraged to participate in the picket line protests by one of her English teaching assistants, who told her the best way to support and learn more about the cause is to participate.

“Walking around [campus] people talk about it but you don’t really learn about it until you go to this kind of thing or do an extensive amount of research and even picketing for two hours, the chants the lady was calling out, I learned more than I have in the past 2 weeks.”

An interesting tidbit Aubry learned while attending the protest is the discrepancy in graduate student and TA participation in the strike, specifically those from the Colleges of Business and Engineering.

“The TAs from engineering and business get paid through their individual colleges because they get funded differently. Engineering and business pretty much isn’t striking” said Aubry.

The lack of unity has led to the strike impacting some students’ entire schedule, while others have seen little to no change.

“My classes have been canceled the whole week, and I’m an anthropology major.” Aubry said. “Anthropology is in LAS [Liberal Arts and Sciences] which is one of the most affected colleges.”

“I haven’t had a class canceled this week,” said Justin Sowinski, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, “however I think the university should step up and get this resolved because TA’s are so valuable in our classes. They basically translate the professors knowledge of hard engineering concepts into things we can understand during discussion.”

Aubry believes fellow undergraduate support could be the key in resolving the strike quicker. “I think undergraduates joining can change [the strike resolution] the most because if the university sees the undergraduates getting mad… that’s going to spark a flame that we need a change because it’s directly affecting our education.”

Graduate students call for better treatment

Monday saw the start of the GEO strike at the University of Illinois, with picket lines crossing the Quad and closing off heavily trafficked areas of campus. Graduate students are striking to demand the continuation of tuition waivers and higher wages from the University.

For many graduate students, this negotiation decides whether they are able to continue teaching and learning at the university. Itzel Marshall, a graduate student in library science who is proudly participating in the strike, explained she cannot afford to be here if graduate students and the university do not come to a resolution.

“I am just like most undergraduate students, here to learn, and school is too expensive for me without waivers,” she said.

“My program is the #1 in the world, yet we don’t have guaranteed tuition waivers or assistantships for students. For me, it means I have to pay $20,000 a year out of pocket for tuition alone. I’ll graduate with my masters with over an extra $50,000 in debt, despite working thoughout my entire college career.”

Marshall commutes from Indianapolis three times a week to attend classes and work. She leaves her husband and child at home to come here for an education and struggles to have enough time with them, as she works every day she is on campus. These large personal sacrifices are steps she must take so that she can support herself and her education.

She says “I have to work here on campus at Espresso Royale to support my family and education as well, but without a better wage or tuition waivers I cannot make enough from that job alone.”

Marshall explains she has two other part time jobs besides this one, and needs them just to pay rent.

She adds, “There’s no reason the money this school generates shouldn’t be used to fund graduate students, most of whom are working for the school.”

Marshall encourages all students to understand the issues around the strike, and try to support their fellow students at the University.

“Most classes could not run without TAs,” she says.

Marshall also expresses discontent at the university’s handling of the strike, a sentiment she says echoes through most GEO members. While the school may be trying to project that it is bargaining fairly with graduate students, Marshall explains she and her peers see an alternate side.

She says, “We find it sickening that the university is trying to withhold fair wages and healthcare from us while sending out notices to the campus trying to make it sound like they are truly bargaining in good faith. They are trying to bust our union.”

She urges undergraduate students not to cross picket lines, and asks undergraduate students to “Join us, or support us in our strike!”

She adds “The strike will continue until we win. Not if.”




Graduate student strike

As Claire Branigan discussed the GEO strike, fellow graduate students could be heard protesting throughout the quad. Changes to how tuition waivers are going to be handled have graduate students concerned. A similar strike was held by graduate students in 2009.

Branigan said, while organizing the strike, they modeled parts after other rallies. She said that the chants themselves come from different protests, both labor related and not. One of the events they emulated was when the faculty went on strike two years ago.

Under a tent on the quad supporting the GEO, Suzanne Valentine, a former TA and a graduate student on fellowship, discussed how much work has gone into planning the protest. She mentioned that some of the posters the picketers are using were made on their own, while others were made at the bargaining sessions they had with the administration. She emphasized that there were a lot of people at these meetings, and graduate students made an effort to be there.

When asked why the tents are stationed where they are, Valentine said they decided to put the tents in strategic locations where most of their picketing would be held. They also made sure they put them in locations that were easily accessible.

A main effort of the strike is to have members of the GEO protesting at buildings along the quad. Valentine referred to these locations as “support stations” and mentioned that there are three shifts a day, and people sign up for whenever they can. She said that they all meet at the eternal flame statue on the quad and then they are sent off to whichever locations need picketers.

Puerto Rican PhD student wants peace

The GEO strike began on Monday and a PhD student says that the strike is more than just contracts for her.

Noelia Irizarry, 31, says that teaching assistants and graduate assistants are treated worse than minimum wage workers. Irizarry says this because graduate and teaching assistants are doing the work that professors do not want to do, without getting fair treatment. Irizarry is familiar with this feeling because she is a minority and has dealt with discrimination her entire life.

This strike is important to Irizarry because she wants to ensure that she as well as other TAs and GAs are able to stand up for they believe is right and that they are all being treated fairly for their time spent at the University. She says that this is not about getting more than what the University is offering for these teaching and graduate assistants; just getting a guarantee that what is offered now will continue for future graduate students.

Irizarry says, “The University has not been completely respectful to our needs, they have shown themselves to be more interested to be keeping their pockets full.”

This has become personal for Irizarry because she is a Puerto Rico native and she is upset with how the government has dealt with the trauma from the hurricane that hit last year. Parts of Puerto Rico still do not have power, and Irizarry says that with the trouble her country is going through and how her family at home is struggling, she just wants peace and happiness in her life. The strike is additional stress and she wishes it did not have to happen.

Those a part of this strike coined “Undergraduates of today are the graduates of tomorrow.” With the purpose of saying that undergrads are also welcome to be a part of this strike because it involves them as well.

Irizarry is currently on fellowship but has experience assistant teaching art history survey courses, Renaissance to modern art and history of design. She is determined to become a professor of modern Latin American and Caribbean art.




Those that sat this one out


Life continues uninterrupted for a few teaching assistants and graduate assistants who decided not to strike this week. While many walked the circle and chanted along, others found that it just wasn’t worth the effort.

One such TA is Mike Baumgartner, a master’s student, and TA for SE 101. He explained that despite being a member of the GEO, he said his Professor, James Leake, director of engineering graphics, had fought for 3 semesters to keep him as a TA, and Baumgartner felt he should pay back that hard work.

“I’m currently the most experienced TA for the class so my absence would create a lot of extra work for him,”  Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner also noted how not many Engineering TA’s were striking, and how different it might be if more did.

“If TAs from the college of engineering were involved I think the strike would have been over in a day,” Baumgartner said. It would seem that for some departments at Illinois, there simply wasn’t enough to gain from the strike.

The strike is planned for a week of picketing and rallies as TA’s protest the school’s treatment of them in contract negotiations. The strike reaches many of the school’s main quad buildings including Altgeld, Lincoln, English, and Foreign Languages Building.

Classes are not officially canceled, although professors may choose to move their classes to non-picketed buildings,  as Andreas Cangellaris, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost, explained in an email.

Students face dilemma of respecting picket lines or attending classes

The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) strike that began on Monday is putting students in a difficult situation as they cross picket lines to attend classes that were not cancelled.

Not all professors relocated or cancelled their classes — some classes are still being held in picketed buildings. This leaves undergraduate students with no choice but to either skip the class or enter picketed buildings.

Clint Moon, freshman in Biology, had to pass GEO members who were protesting on his way to a class in Foellinger Auditorium. He shared that he felt uncomfortable and guilty because it seemed as if he was going against the GEO even though he agrees with what they are fighting for. Most, if not all, his teachers are graduate students, some of whom he really respects.

“I think that it’s fair to students [who] still want to attend class,” Moon stated in regards to classes that were not moved or cancelled. “But it’s also an act of ignoring an issue and essentially glancing over it.”

Neha Chanvani, freshman in the Division of General Studies, was luckier than Moon. Chanvani has not had to come across a situation like this yet, as her classes in picketed buildings got cancelled. She stated that she would not feel comfortable passing through a picket line.

“I understand why they’re picketing and I think they’re picketing for a good reason,” Chanvani said. “Everybody has the right to their opinion and for whatever reason, they may not choose to support [the strike]. I just do.”

Neha Chanvani, freshman in the Division of General Studies says she would feel uncomfortable crossing picket lines. 

Provost Andreas Cangellaris stated in a Massmail to undergraduates that although picketers are not allowed to “create a disturbance or block entrances or exits,” they have the right to talk to students who pass picket lines.

“As a student, you have a right to attend the classes for which you pay tuition,” Cangellaris said.

Derrick Spires, Assistant Professor of English, who moved his class to a different location, shared that he supports the graduate students and their right to strike.

“It is a really important feature of labor,” Spires said. “Their requests are not being honored.”

Spires’s Introduction to American Literature class typically meets in the English Building, which is one of the locations that is being picketed. He moved his class to Wohlers Hall until the strike is over because he did not want to put his students in a situation in which they have to cross picket lines if they feel uncomfortable doing so.

Cierra Humphrey, second-year graduate student in LAS, shared her reasons as to why she is passionate about the strike.

“I have some medical issues, and the health care that we receive isn’t currently adequate,” Humphrey said, “I recently got married. We’re trying to start a family… that’s not really something that is a possibility for many of us.”

She stated that fair wages and good health care are both human and worker rights. She added that she encourages undergraduates to think about what would happen if the TAs and GAs who teach their classes stopped working completely.

She also talked about how it is disappointing when some professors don’t move or cancel their classes in respect of the picket lines.

“What we would hope is that people who have the privilege of having a faculty position would stand in solidarity with us,” Humphrey stated.

Cierra Humphrey, second-year graduate student in LAS, says that she is disappointed when professors do not respect the picket lines.