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UIC graduate workers get boost from Bernie Sanders on sixth day of strike

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at Navy Pier, Sunday, March 3, 2019, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at Navy Pier, Sunday, March 3, 2019, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers got a boost on their sixth day of striking from 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I say to UIC: Sit down at the bargaining table. Negotiate in good faith. Pay your workers a living wage,” Sanders said in a tweet expressing his solidarity with striking workers.

More than 1,500 teaching assistants went on strike last Tuesday, bringing the university’s regular operations to a standstill with classes needing to be canceled or held online. 

Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for UIC graduate workers striking Monday.

Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) and a Ph.D. candidate in labor history, said the group wants to resolve the conflicts before it has an effect on students’ ability to finish their semester or graduate, but that the university has not budged in a dispute over rising student fees.

“We met two times since the strike started, and their position has not changed,” Schuhrke said. “They’re behaving recklessly at this point.”

According to Schuhrke, the university has been willing to negotiate over wages and health care, but will not discuss the fees. A statement on the university’s website says “the University remains willing to address the fee issues within its wage and health care proposals.”

Graduate employees receive a minimum $18,065 salary for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, plus $13,502 in tuition and fee waivers. The union is asking for a 24 percent increase, and the university is offering an 11.5 percent increase.

“UIC is dependent on the revenue from the general and international fees and is unable to meet requests to waive those fees for GEO employees,” the university’s online statement says.

Supporters of the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization rally and march to implore members of the UIC board for a conversation about the ongoing GEO strike, Tuesday, March 6th, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Students pay $862 per year as a general fee, which will increase to $962 next year. International students pay an additional $260 fee; they make up about half of GEO employees.

“Such fees serve as an indirect pay cut to graduate workers and must be addressed,” a GEO statement said.

The union will continue to strike during Spring Break this week, though daily picketing is on hold. The graduate employee group has three future meetings set up with university officials.

“During a strike, the university is committed to continuing normal operations to the fullest extent possible,” a university statement said. “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.”