February 15, 2018

Dear Chancellor Jones and Provost Cangellaris,

It was with surprise and dismay that I read your February 9 massmail to the faculty, staff, and graduate students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In it, you wrote to notify the campus of an impending strike by the university’s graduate employees and to clarify the administration’s proposal regarding tuition waivers. The letter was, I trust, meant to reassure. For faculty and staff, it outlined the university’s priorities in the event of a strike. For graduate and teaching assistants gearing up to walk off their jobs, it attempted to allay concerns about the administration’s commitment to tuition waivers as fair compensation for graduate labor.

As a TA myself, however, I did not find this letter remotely reassuring.

Under the university’s proposal, departments would, according to your massmail, be granted “the needed flexibility to adapt and modify their graduate programs in light of changing needs and administrative models.” As I understand it, the goal behind this troublingly imprecise statement is to permit departments and the administration to grant appointments that do not generate full tuition waivers. At the same time, current TAs and GAs who, like me, came to UIUC on the condition that we would receive full tuition waivers for our work—who, in fact, would not be able to attend UIUC at all except for our full tuition waivers—will remain “eligible to receive tuition waiver-generating assistantships” so long as we remain in good standing with our respective departments.

Now, I should be clear: I do not belong to the leadership of the Graduate Employees Organization and do not presume to speak on its behalf. That said, I don’t need the union to tell me how much work that word “eligible” is doing here. Nor do I think I need to emphasize the harm that competition for full tuition waivers would do to (1) the university’s ability to attract top, diverse talent; (2) the graduate employees, who teach and grade and make this university run; and (3) the undergraduates and faculty, who depend on the work that graduate employees do.

But, of course, you already know this. Or at the very least you have already heard these arguments. As of this letter, I have been working 185 days without a contract—and GEO has been at the bargaining table for even longer. At this point, the administration has heard our litany of concerns and arguments. And where has it gotten us?

So before February 26  rolls around, before TAs and GAs walk off their jobs, before the picket lines start forming, I want to take just a moment to describe how the university stands to affect not some frustrated, anonymous collective waving signs and marching, but me and my family.

In the summer of 2015, my high school sweetheart and I got married, and the two of us—freshly graduated from college—moved to Champaign. I started studying with the English department; Jes found work as a receptionist at a local federally qualified health center. For the first few months, it was fun, living on our own, and strange too, in a good way—sort of like playing house. But then Jes got sick, really, chronically sick, and I remember sitting up at night and just listening to her breathe, in, out, in, out. And worrying.

Without exaggeration, Jes and I need the health insurance that the university provides and that GEO has secured for us. And we were thrilled when the administration scrapped an earlier proposal to cap its contribution to premiums. Nevertheless, the administration’s current proposal, which could substantially revise UIUC’s approach to tuition waivers, threatens the integrity of our union by admitting graduate employees not covered by the terms of our bargaining unit. A weakened bargaining unit, in turn, makes future reductions to essentials like health coverage all the more likely.

So while I assume—and appreciate—your sympathy on my family’s behalf, sympathy will not cut it. Respectfully, I do not trust the administration to act justly toward to its graduate employees if left to its own devices. For that reason, GEO needs to remain strong. Whatever its assertions otherwise, the administration has not been bargaining in good faith.

I do not want to strike. No one wants a strike. But if it comes to it, Jes and I will be on the picket line February 26, bright and early, because at that point we will have no other choice. 185 days, after all, is a terribly long time to wait.

In earnestness,

Benjamin R. DeVries
Graduate Employee

Ben DeVries

Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.

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