Why Tuition Waiver Policy Matters

In response to the Provost’s message of 3/2/2018:

Why do tuition waivers matter so much? Access to tuition waivers is part of membership in the bargaining unit, the GEO. And cutting off the eligibility of graduate student workers to be in the bargaining unit means the end of the GEO.

The administration’s claims about tuition waivers have nothing to do with academic governance (which would in any case involve the Senate of the Urbana-Champaign Campus) and everything to do with creating a campus where graduate students employed to teach and do other work would be excluded from the bargaining unit and from the benefits negotiated by GEO for all such graduate employees. That’s why the GEO position is so simple: salary and a tuition waiver for all graduate employees doing the work of the bargaining unit.

There is nothing in the GEO’s proposed contract language that prevents the university or its units from developing new, flexible, and income-generating graduate programs. The students in those new programs can be warned that they are not permitted to do GEO-equivalent bargaining unit work. But if they are somehow hired to teach or do other GEO-equivalent work at a significant appointment level (currently 25 – 67% appointments) then they must receive equal pay and benefits for equal work. It is entirely the responsibility of the university administration to prevent such students from being hired if the university does not want them to receive tuition waivers.

As the administration has noted, the language of the original side letter on tuition waivers has been subject to legal interpretations based on Illinois employment law. In two separate arbitration decisions, the language of the side letter has been interpreted according to the law. We have been told that “these decisions restrict a department’s ability to reclassify an existing graduate program to a self-supporting program.” The decisions actually preserve the right to collective bargaining and meaningful union representation.

Employers cannot cite shareholder governance, faculty governance, or any other factor to justify reclassifying workers out of a collective bargaining agreement. If they could, most employers with union workers would simply create a new category for these employees and claim they were no longer the kind of employee covered by the existing contract. Colloquially, that’s referred to as “union-busting.” It is a prime example of not bargaining in good faith.

This is stated quite clearly in Illinois labor law. Bargaining in good faith requires each party to accept the legitimacy and continued existence of the other party. Bargaining proposals which would – if accepted – threaten the very existence of the GEO, whether explicitly or implicitly, cannot be considered good faith bargaining. They may in fact be illegal. (See the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, 115 ILCS 5/14; ch. 48, par. 1714.)

These labor arbitration decisions re. tuition waivers in no way affect the role of faculty governance at Illinois, because faculty governance is – logically – limited by state and federal law. We cannot cite faculty governance to support, for example, paying women less than men for the same work: that’s simply illegal. Even if faculty within a department, school, or college sought to exercise their authority to create a union-busting category of graduate student employees outside the GEO, it would still be illegal.

Is the university wasting its time and resources on a bargaining position that won’t stand up in court in any case?