Response to UI Executive Vice President’s Statement Regarding Graduate Employee Healthcare
Healthcare is a subject of contract negotiations between the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) administration. During last year’s bargaining, GEO proposed minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act to be written into the contract, but the university rejected this proposal due to their pre-existing contract with United Healthcare. As of now, GEO has no input into or control over this healthcare contract, which is offered based on student rather than employee status. Both historically and in the latest negotiations, GEO is able only to negotiate the portion of the premium which UIUC pays. Therefore, when the Executive Vice President of the UI System Barbara Wilson claims that “The graduate rate is higher because the Graduate Employees’ Organization negotiated a top-tier health plan in their contract,” as she did in the recent News Gazette article “On UI Trustees’ Agenda: Student Health-Insurance Rate Increase, Mascot Ideas,” she is misinformed at best, and lying at worst. Here are the facts.
GEO members, like all graduate students, receive healthcare through a contract which is signed on behalf of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees by the Contracts Purchasing division. The latest contract was signed in May 2015, and renewable for up to 8 years at the request of the university administration. The content of the plan, the cost of premiums, and the request for renewal are currently all determined by this Contracts Purchasing division — squarely outside the purview of the GEO. During last year’s negotiations with GEO, the university rejected GEO’s proposals for much-needed improvements such as increased mental healthcare access, reproductive care, and summer insurance coverage, but was willing to increase the portion of our premium which they pay by 7%. Less than a week after our contract was signed, those same insurance premiums increased from $508 to $582 per semester, or 15% — thus undercutting GEO members’ hard-won financial gain. This year, they will rise even more dramatically, to $696 per semester (an increase of 20%).
Graduate employees cannot afford higher healthcare premiums. The minimum wage for graduate employees, $17,439, is below the MIT-published living wage for a single adult in Champaign County, which is $24,544, and healthcare represents a significant additional financial burden for many. In fact, financial insecurity is experienced by so many of our members that one Urbana city council member recently pointed to our population as a contributing factor to the fact that Urbana has a higher poverty rate than Champaign, in the News-Gazette article “Cunningham Township Supervisor Breaks Down Poverty Stats for Board.” The university’s power to change our healthcare quality and price at will is exactly why we keep asking for a seat at the table, and this was a major subject of bargaining for over a year during our latest negotiations.
The University of Illinois at Chicago GEO is currently on strike, facing many of the same battles that led UIUC GEO to strike last year — including back-door pay cuts of this nature. The University of Illinois Board of Trustees needs to own up to its own actions, and the actions of its constituent universities, instead of blaming the labor unions which represent its workers.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization, AFT/IFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, represents approximately 2,700 Teaching and Graduate Assistants on the UIUC Campus. In November 2009 and in February 2018, over 1,000 GEO members and allies participated in a strike to secure a fair contract and more accessible UIUC campus. With an active presence in the community, the GEO continues to work for high-quality and accessible public education in Illinois.
For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can also be found on GEO’s website at www.uiucgeo.org.