A strike by more than 1,500 graduate student workers fighting poverty wages imposed by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) administration, backed by the Democratic Party, was called off and ended last month, following the intervention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Although the Graduate Educators Organization (GEO is a subsidiary of the AFT) proclaimed a “victory” and suspended the strike on April 27, the striking students were handed a contract that maintained unbearable poverty wages for the duration of the period 2022-2025.
On April 29, GEO tweeted: “GEO members have definitely ratified our next contract! The strike is no longer suspended, it is now over! We look forward to implementing this contract. No details were provided on the exact vote count or how many graduate students voted.
What is clear is that this is a contract that will keep graduate students in conditions of economic desperation. The total annual income of $24,200 accepted by GEO for the final year of the contract, which includes a no-strike clause, will push graduate students into extreme levels of poverty and financial hardship, with inflation already at 8, 5% currently. This is the second UIC graduate student strike in recent years and has resulted in another sell-out deal that keeps graduate students impoverished and exploited.
Even before the vote on the contract last month, there was a determination among graduate students and undergraduate supporters that they had to fight for a significantly higher living wage to survive. One graduate worker highlighted the levels of difficulty he currently faces: “Almost every non-PhD student I know has at least two jobs, possibly more unpaid work, given the research requirements for my particular degree. »
A sold-out deal
The full details of the contract show why a new policy strategy is needed for graduate students and educators, at UIC and other universities. The GEO, under pressure from the AFT, imposes a clearance sale contract and isolates the doctoral students’ strike. Here are some key details:
Wages: UIC students will receive $22,590 in the first year of the contract, $23,440 in the second year and $24,200 in the final year of the contract. With inflation at 8.5% and rising, in real terms, these wages will amount to a massive wage cut this year alone.
None of these salaries will meet the central demand of students for a living wage in Chicago, with an ever-increasing cost of living. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage currently requires more than $36,000 a year for a childless adult to survive in Cook County, where Chicago is located. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago is over $2,155. Gas prices in Chicago are currently at $5 a gallon.
Graduate students deserve far more than the university claims they can “afford”, while senior UIC officials are paid hundreds of thousands a year and the UIC board is headed by billionaires and millionaires, including billionaire Democratic Governor of Illinois JB Pritzker.
Health care: Students will be required to pay $260 for health insurance each semester in the first year of the contract, $270 per semester in the second year of the contract, and $280 per semester in the final year. Additionally, the plans will only cover 25% of healthcare costs for graduates’ dependents, including spouses and children. But what students need is fully paid healthcare, including for dependents, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Costs: The GEO agreed to a number of fees in the contract that will eat away at the paychecks of student salaries. Some examples include: parking fees which can increase each year by 4%, an “overhead” of $25 per semester, etc. All of these fees must be eliminated and the high cost of tuition for graduate and undergraduate students must be significantly reduced.
Strikes: Most egregiously, GEO agreed to a no-strike clause that will force graduate students to work under the terms of this sold-out contract even if the cost of living spirals out of control: “There will be no strikes during the term of this agreement. Neither the Union, through its officers, nor any assistant covered by this Agreement shall cause, incite, participate in supporting, encouraging or tolerating a strike, slowdown or sympathy strike. »
The path to follow
At the same time, the determination of graduate students to strike at UIC was not just a contract battle. It was part of a growing wave of working class struggles around the world against intolerable living conditions and soaring food and gas prices, in part due to the war campaign between the United States and NATO in Ukraine against Russia. Mass protests have engulfed the developing world, including in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Peru and a number of other countries.
Indiana University students are also in their fifth week on strike, determined to fight similar conditions faced by graduate students at UIC and across the country. In recent years, graduate students across the United States have boldly gone on strike to demand an end to their indentured servitude at American colleges and universities. These struggles included strikes at Columbia University in New York, the University of Michigan, the University of California and many others.
The militant mood of the graduate students is part of a leftist movement of young people increasingly hostile to the capitalist system. These strikes express the will of this massively exploited layer of workers to fight against impossible living conditions.
Such developments underscore the enormous potential for a broader mobilization of the working class to unite and fight for a markedly higher standard of living and against the bipartisan attacks on public education that have continued for more than two decades. .
However, graduate students, like all workers, must be able to tell friend from foe. Organizations like the GEO and the AFT and others like the United Auto Workers and the United Electrical Workers who call themselves “unions” are actively working to stifle workers’ struggles.
Throughout the UIC graduate student strike, the AFT and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) prevented UIC faculty from conducting sympathy strikes with graduate students. And the SEIU and other unions have kept UIC health workers and staff (who previously went on strike in 2020) on the job. No effort was made to unite faculty, workers and students at UIC and beyond to close the campus. The teachers continued to teach, forced by the teachers’ union and the AFT to cross the picket line in person and online.
UIC graduate students also had to petition GoFundMe for strike pay, even as the AFT and IFT control millions in assets and financial resources, including paying AFT Chairman Randi Weingarten nearly half a million in revenue every year.
Graduate students, undergraduates and workers must learn the political lessons of the strike and break out of the shackles of the so-called “unions”, which impose the exploitation of graduate students and subordinate them to the interests of the corporate elite and finance and the Democratic Party.
The UIC administration, affirming Democratic Party policy, made provocative statements during the strike that it would not provide students with a living wage. This is consistent with bipartisan attacks on public and higher education over the past two decades, while corporate profits and the wealth of Illinois billionaires remain untouched. In the past two years of the pandemic, universities have cut more than 650,000 jobs.
The claim that there is no money for education is yet another lie. Trillions of dollars have been donated to Wall Street during the pandemic and over the past four decades as funding for education has been decimated. And billions more have been handed over to the US military to wage plunder wars that increasingly threaten planetary suicide, most recently reckless US and NATO provocations in Ukraine against Russia.
Meanwhile, funding for higher education in the United States was $6.6 billion less in 2018 than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation, according to research by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Graduate students from UIC, Indiana, and across the country must counter the lie that there is no money and fight to mobilize society’s resources to meet social needs, including public education. Education is a social right that can only be defended in a struggle against the capitalist system, which enriches a tiny social stratum at the expense of the vast majority of workers. However, new organizations, independent of the unions and the Democratic Party, must be built to carry out such a struggle.
Independent committees of the graduate student base must be established at UIC and beyond that will fight for the interests of graduate workers and bind together undergraduates, faculty and workers and will appeal to teachers and to the industrial workers of Chicago in a common political struggle against the intolerable living conditions faced by millions of people under capitalism today. Such a struggle requires a socialist strategy to win.
Contact the WSWS today to discuss a socialist strategy for graduate students. Help build the International Youth and Students for Social Equality chapter at UIC and other campuses.