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UIC graduate workers end strike after 2 weeks on picket line

UIC grad school workers ended their strike Friday. | Dawn Tefft/Facebook

After two weeks on the picket line and more than a year at the bargaining table, teaching and graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago have made a deal that will put more than 1,500 employees back to work, union leaders said Friday.

The three-year tentative contract agreement ensures pay hikes, 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 late Thursday, the union continued its strike which began March 19  because the terms of ending the walkout — such as how workers could recoup lost pay — weren’t final, the union said.

Those terms were reached Friday afternoon after the university agreed to allow teaching and graduate assistants the opportunity to make up any work hours they missed during the strike. The school on the Near West Side also agreed not to retaliate against workers who took part in the strike, the union said.

“We feel good. This was a really hard fight,” said Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the union. “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.”

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.

A university spokeswoman confirmed 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.

A group of undergraduate students also rallied Friday 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