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UIC graduate workers reach tentative contract agreement, but strike goes on

A logo for the University of Illinois at Chicago campus in Chicago on September 10, 2018.

The union representing teaching and graduate assistants reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday night with the University of Illinois at Chicago, but the strike is not over yet. | Sun-Times file photo

After more than 13 months of negotiations, teaching and graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago have reached a tentative contract agreement with the university that puts the more than 1,500 workers on the verge of ending their two-week strike.

The three-year agreement would ensure wage increases, cheaper health care and other financial gains for the workers represented by the UIC Graduate Employees Organization.

But despite agreeing to terms for a new contract, the union will continue its strike — which began March 19 — through at least Thursday night because the terms of the strike’s end have not been settled.

The university’s negotiator still needs to consult with UIC management before details of the strike’s conclusion — such as how workers could recoup lost pay — could be finalized, the union said.

“The main thing for us is that it’s not over,” said Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the union. “We’re still on strike because their negotiator said he didn’t have the authority to negotiate the terms to end the strike.

“We were thinking it could happen tonight,” Schuhrke said late Thursday. “We’re hoping we can get this done sometime tomorrow.”

A university spokeswoman confirmed Thursday night that a tentative contract agreement was reached but declined further comment.

The workers on strike make a baseline salary of $18,000 while paying $2,000 in university fees, according to the union.

Schuhrke said the university has in the past used fees to offset raises and give indirect pay cuts.

Under the new contract, workers would see reduced fees, increased company contributions to health care plans, coverage of dependent care by the university and a $2,550 wage increase over three years — the largest raise in the union’s history.

Hiring discrimination on the basis of citizenship or immigration status would also be barred, the union said.

Schuhrke said all of the university’s concessions were “major wins” for the graduate workers, many of whom packed the room to watch the open negotiations the past two days.

“We feel good. This was a really hard fight,” Schuhrke said. “For graduate workers, it’s always difficult to just even have a union … To do this, to win our best contract to date, we’re happy and we’re proud.”

Earlier Thursday, the union representing the school’s full-time faculty said it planned a strike authorization vote for next week.

“We do not go into this lightly,” Janet Smith, president of UIC United Faculty said in a letter posted on the union’s website. “We have been negotiating since June 2018 and our contract expired in August. Our bargaining team has won many important concessions, but on issues of pay and equity, we have yet to see a serious offer.”

A group of undergraduate students also planned a rally for Friday at noon to protest the university’s handling of negotiations with the graduate and teaching assistants.

“We’re getting close to the end of this particular fight,” Schuhrke said, “but there are still more fights to go at the university.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito