Chicago Grad Workers First to Win COVID-19 Demands

UIC picketers on sidewalk

From an earlier time, University of Illinois at Chicago graduate workers and supporters picketed during their strike last year. Photo: Dawn Tefft, cropped from original.

UPDATE: On May 1 graduate employees won free summer 2020 housing in the dorms for all international students who need it. The union continued to pressure the university administration after winning its MOU earlier.

Workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have bargained what we believe are the first set of wins for a graduate union negotiating the effects of COVID-19. It was our winning strike last year that made our employer realize it should come to the table and give us what we demanded.

When the crisis hit in March, graduate workers at UIC quickly realized that having health insurance would not prevent them from accruing huge medical bills.

Nor did teaching assistants and graduate assistants, who perform much of the teaching and administrative duties at the university, have sufficient sick leave, as is typical for graduate workers in the U.S. on short-term contracts.

To make matters worse, international student workers who traditionally receive only nine months a year of financial support from the university found themselves stranded in the U.S. after the worldwide suspension of travel. They were left to their own devices by the university’s Office of International Services.

This office charges an international student fee each semester, but failed to provide immigration updates and guidance to international workers, who were left to interpret contradictory advisories issued by federal immigration authorities.

Unable to work off campus because their visas prohibit them from doing so, most international student workers had no job for the summer and no family members in the U.S. to stay with in case of eviction.


Illinois declared a state of emergency on March 9. Within 24 hours, members of Graduate Employees (GEO) Local 6297 had used a stewards meeting to draft bargaining demands and create an organizing plan. The list included two weeks' paid sick leave, full coverage of COVID-19 related medical care, and free housing and a $400/month stipend over the summer for international students stuck in the U.S. without income.

The administration agreed to meet but then rejected each of the union’s demands.

In response, a steward wrote an article for Jacobin magazine explaining how at the start of the pandemic, UIC’s trustees had voted to allocate $300 million to erect buildings and also voted to increase health care premiums for students.

On March 21 GEO emailed the membership that article and instructions on how to email the administration. Later that day, management told union leaders they would be changing their position on some of the demands and the union could stop flooding their inboxes.

Two days later the administration sent a revised proposal for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), agreeing to many of GEO’s demands. But we continued to negotiate to try to win the remaining ones.

GEO’s contract specified 3.25 sick days per semester for the average 20-hour per week job. The union fought for and won two weeks of paid sick leave, on top of regular sick leave, for anyone who contracted COVID-19 or was taking care of a family member with it. (These crucial wins were eventually replaced by more comprehensive COVID-19 sick leave policies in the federal government CARES Act.)

Many members had written the union requesting teletherapy services for mental health. Knowing that studies show graduate workers have some of the highest stress levels in the nation, GEO fought for and won mental health counseling by telephone.

The union also won coverage for members who use CampusCare, the university’s in-house health care provider. And though the university didn’t formally agree to this in an MOU, it did institute a policy covering all COVID-related out-of-network ER expenses at 100 percent and urgent care at 70 percent.

The policy also met our demand of mass pre-authorization of all COVID-19-related tests and treatments at ER and urgent care facilities. Previous policy required that doctors individually pre-authorize all out-of-network treatment.



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These emergency care wins were critical, according to GEO Secretary Jared O’Connor, because “the system establishes too many barriers to access treatment easily and equitably. I have been stymied by Campus Care during a medical emergency and it only made the situation worse.”

Though the administration never formally agreed to our demand to create long-term repayment plans for student debt owed to UIC, it did institute that for those who owe less than $1,500. And in response to demands from both graduates and undergraduates, it partially refunded fees, dorm costs, parking passes, and meal service plans.


The union had effectively reversed management’s position on all but one of our initial demands. But the university still refused economic relief for international graduate workers, who could neither return to their home countries for the summer nor work outside the university.

So the union’s International Caucus crafted a larger set of demands, including the initial one around financial relief, and emailed them on April 3 to administrators and the Office of International Services.

The caucus asked for a response within a week, or they would email the bargaining unit with the expanded demands. The Caucus felt the administration wouldn’t want them to agitate the international students who make up 40 percent of the bargaining unit and are often more exploited than domestic workers—and they were correct.

A week and a day later, the administration announced a task force on summer funding issues.

It also announced a virtual town hall, where International Caucus members agitated. Afterward, a caucus member and a union officer were invited to be on the task force.

The task force has so far created 80 new internships and assistantships over the summer, both for international workers and for U.S. workers who have lost assistantships due to the shift to online classes. At least 40 more are needed, for international students alone.

“The amount of organizing that was done since last year's strike paid off during the current crisis,” said International Caucus member Siamack Hajimohammad. “The active presence of various committees and subgroups in GEO made the communication very effective across the board.”


A year before the pandemic, GEO went on an offensive strike for three weeks, ultimately winning the largest raises in the union’s history, fee reductions and fee freezes, lower health care costs, and a requirement that all departments create grievable policies regarding appointments and reappointments.

In February, a month before Illinois declared a state of emergency, union members staged a march on the boss. They swarmed the provost’s office to demand the university stop violating labor law, which the university’s labor relations staff had felt emboldened to do with greater frequency since the Janus decision that eliminated fair-share dues in the public sector.

GEO's actions to protect workers’ health and economic rights during the pandemic were all the more successful because of the union’s history of taking strong action. The administration knew GEO wasn’t going to let up, and decided it made more sense to work with the union than to remain in conflict.

GEO and other locals in the coalition of campus unions are pushing to reallocate the funds away from new buildings and toward addressing workers' needs during the pandemic.

“I think the UI System has failed and continues to fail to budget properly,” said GEO Co-President Sagen Cocklin. “We have seen time and time again that the university is much more keen to fund buildings than the people that work inside of them.”

Zukhra Kasimova is a member of UIC-GEO Local 6297’s International Caucus and Dawn Tefft is executive director of GEO.