University should yield to GEO’s waiver demands; TAs too essential

Last week, during my communication exam, I asked one of the proctors, a TA, to tell me about the graduate communication program at the University. She then explained the requirements and benefits to me. Of the benefits she explained, one of them was waiving tuition in exchange for teaching a class.

This particular perk is in serious jeopardy. On the Quad, there was a booth with two young women representing the Graduate Employees’ Organization. They were informing students about the GEO, their current efforts to negotiate a new contract with University administration and the possibility of TAs having to strike at the end of the semester.

The latter is the most alarming. TAs are so fundamental to this campus, and it’s hard to imagine some classes without them. For this reason, the University should make finalizing a new contract a top priority.

The previous contract expired in August, but the GEO has been unsuccessfully negotiating with administration since April. They are currently pushing for a new contract that will provide substantial wages, health care and tuition waiver protection, which is one of the most dominant and most important issues. The GEO argues in a FAQ flier posted to its website, “we cannot bargain wages without tuition waiver protection because a raise means nothing if the administration removes or reduces waivers.” 

Tuition waivers allow the University to hire graduate students for cheap while also being able to compete for the best students. But, it seems as if the University wants to phase out tuition waivers altogether, inevitably forcing students to personally pay for their graduate education, which is unaffordable for many. Someone once told me that if you have to pay for graduate school you shouldn’t go — and I didn’t understand what they meant until now.

The GEO’s current situation is unfair, especially because TAs contribute a large and significant part to our education. For me, there have been several classes where the work of a TA has made the difference between struggling and succeeding in the course. Unfortunately, the GEO is being pushed to near drastic measures in a fight they have already fought.

In November 2009, roughly 1,000 members of the GEO went on strike for two days. The contract granted by the University protected these graduate student workers from any kind of reduction or elimination of tuition waivers. In 2010, however, the University violated this contract for students in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Today, the GEO is fighting a legal battle to secure reimbursements for those students affected. 

In all honesty, this should never come to legal blows. As a top-ranked university with numerous renowned programs, the University should want to do whatever it takes to upkeep their prestigious programs, starting with paying and protecting the people who help teach them.

University administration should negotiate a fair contract with GEO sooner rather than later — it’s the least they can do. This rift has the potential to affect the entire campus, especially undergraduate students who are taught by TAs. For many students, a discussion section with a TA can make quite the difference in a large and difficult lecture class.

For example, science and math have never been my subjects, and when both were combined in my astronomy class freshman year, I had to seek additional help. Even with Office of Minority Student Affairs’ tutoring services, I still had to attend additional office hours held by the TA to keep up in the course. I received a B, but that wouldn’t have been possible without my effort and the dedicated graduate students willing to help me. 

Having a TA also allows students to receive personal attention and develop relationships with instructors. They aim to break down large lecture concepts, allowing students to become more engaged in the material, which in turn leads students to do better in the course.

While members of the GEO are employees of the University, it’s most important to remember that they themselves are also students and deserve the tools needed to succeed as well. Most importantly this should include an environment and administration, which is supportive of their endeavors, not one prone to turn on them at moment’s notice. In this current situation, members of the GEO cannot helps students effectively or keep up on their own work if their working conditions constantly have them stressing about money or their tuition.

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board recently heard the case of the GEO. According to the GEO’s website, “At the hearing the IELRB staff presented the facts and legal arguments of the case and recommended the Board decide in favor of the GEO.” No formal ruling will be made until Nov. 15, but the University should make a conscious effort to step in and reach an agreement. After all, it is their own students they’re fighting against. 

Ta’les is a junior in Media. She can be reached at