URBANA, ILLINOIS--Graduate student workers walked off the job and picketed today at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), shutting down classes in a bid to force the university to grant them collective bargaining rights. More than 160 kilometers away at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), an allied graduate student group held rallies and occupied the chancellor's office. But both universities maintain that the majority of graduate students reject unionization, and neither school has plans to negotiate, officials said.
The walkout at the Urbana campus is the culmination of 5 years of efforts by the UIUC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) to gain union representation. In the past, the GEO has taken the battle to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the state supreme court, and the legislature, but was rebuffed each time. The GEO, which is affiliated with and partially funded by the 1.2-million-member American Federation of Teachers, says that UIUC could recognize the graduate employees union at any time, as have more than two dozen other universities in the United States and Canada.
The strike by 500 graduate students is shutting down more than 10% of the undergraduate classes, affecting about 10,000 of the university's 28,000 undergraduates, says Dave Kamper, GEO spokesperson and UIUC history graduate student. At the Chicago campus, meanwhile, 20 UIC GEO members occupied the chancellor's office all day Wednesday, spokesperson Kat McLellan told ScienceNOW. The UIUC group says that union representation will help them win higher pay, better benefits, and fair hiring and grievance procedures.
UIUC spokesperson Bill Murphy minimized the impact of the walkout, calling the work stoppage a "nonevent." The university believes that unionization disrupts the relationship between faculty and students. The school, he said, is trying to keep graduate student stipends competitive, and does not believe unionization is necessary.
The UIUC GEO plans to continue its fight until the university recognizes the union and sits down at the bargaining table. "There will be disruption on this campus until we get democracy," Kamper says. That could include work stoppages that close down classes without warning, or an open-ended strike that could effectively shut down the campus, he says.
Information on graduate unions at U.S. and Canadian campuses 
Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 
University of Illinois position paper opposing graduate student unionization 
Graduate unions and organizing campaigns affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers