Collective Action Will Get Us A Contract

DAYS WITHOUT A CONTRACT: 450

We hit a milestone today. 450 days without a contract. Even longer since we started bargaining. GAU requested to begin bargaining in March 2010 and we had our first bargaining session with the administration’s team in April 2010. We managed to make some progress on minor issues but by October 2010, negotiations were mostly stalled. In March 2011, a federal mediator came in for two sessions before (as the mediator told us), the administration’s team had said there was nothing else to talk about. After we wrote a letter that appeared in the Southern, within a day a representative of the Board’s team had reached out to us to say “Oh, the mediator was wrong! We never meant to cut off negotiations!” and we went back to mostly unproductive sessions. Over the summer, we managed to clear out most of the minor issues we had on the table, leaving us with two major issues left: fees and health care.

When we conducted our multiple surveys, one-on-one conversations, and small focus groups, fees were the number one concern of graduate assistants on campus. Of our annual salary, the average PhD student working 20 hours a week (which is, of course, on the higher end of the stipend pay scale) pays 20 percent of their salary back to the university in fees. For many people, that amounts to two months of pay. GAs would need approximately a 12 percent stipend increase in a four-year contract to break even with the fees at the current level and this would not help us with future fees.

GAU proposed a fee freeze to try to minimize the damage fees are doing to the meager stipend we receive. The university administration said no and gave no alternate solution. We proposed a higher stipend to reduce the deterioration of our stipends. The university countered with an offer: the Board allocates raises at the rate of non-union employees. This would take wages completely out of our hands and still does not address the issue of fees. At our last bargaining session (September 15, 2011), the university’s bargaining team told us they had an economic offer which they even admitted we wouldn’t like. While we have yet to see that offer, I believe their team will be right: any economic package that does not address where 20% of our stipend goes is one that is not good enough.

Our other issue, health care, has reached even more ridiculous heights. What do you call you a health plan that offers no coverage for vision, dental, partners/dependents, no prescription drug coverage, no coverage for pre-existing conditions for a year (industry standard in the private sector is only six months, by the way), has a $1000 maximum-out-of-pocket for a low wage population, only covers 85% of your expenses, which you cannot completely opt-out of even if you have access to a better plan, is not comparable with similar plans accross the state, and costs you a miminum of $430 annually? Here at SIUC, we call it our student health care plan.

The DE actually has a fairly good article, Students speak out about university insurance policy, which focuses on that lack of coverage. What you may not realize is that the university has total control over that health care plan. They can change it any time — but don’t.

Worse, we asked for information from the university’s team about health care in June. We don’t have that information (and at our bargaining session last week we were told they didn’t even have a guess on when it might be available) — but at least one of the figures we asked for showed up in that article.

There’s also a nicely written plea in the DE from an undergraduate student to the faculty: Think of the students before a strike. This is, of course, hard to read. On one hand, as a student I understand completely what this letter means. On the other, it feels like the administration has forced us so our backs are to the wall and other collective actions we have done have produced no movement. That’s what the vote will hopefully do; just because we vote to authorize a strike doesn’t mean we may actually go on strike. I hope that the message we send by voting yes is more than enough to produce the movement and productivity, overcome the walls of “no” and roadblocks of delays, and net us a fair contract.

Finally (because I’ve rambled enough), ACsE has announced their vote as well: Tuesday September 27, 11:30-1, 4-5:30, Student Center Ballroom A: Association of Civil Service Employees Vote. We’ll also be having informational tabling in the student center (by the escalators), from 10-2 today, Monday, and Tuesday. If you have questions, concerns, comments — stop by and talk to us!

Upcoming Events:
Friday September 23, 10-2: Informational Tabling in the Student Center
Monday September 26, 10-2: Informational Tabling in the Student Center
Tuesday September 27, 10-2: Informational Tabling in the Student Center
Tuesday September 27, 11:30-1, 4-5:30, Student Center Ballroom A: Association of Civil Service Employees Vote
Wednesday September 28: Faculty Association Strike Authorization Vote
Friday September 30: GA United Strike Authorization Vote
Wednesday October 5, 5pm: Informational Meeting for Students About Striking

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