While former Illinois Senator Barack Obama mulls flushing another $40 billion a year in our tax dollars down the toilet in Afghanistan — that’s the estimated annual cost of sending 40,000 more troops for the next several years — graduate employees at the University of Illinois, a “land grant” public institution, are going on strike at 8 AM this morning Chicago time to protect their ability to complete their education, against threats from the University administration to withdraw tuition waivers from graduate employees.
For many teaching assistants and graduate assistants, the withdrawal of a tuition waiver would be an educational death sentence, a de facto financial expulsion from the University. But even though access to a tuition waiver is a basic condition of employment, since without also being students graduate employees would lose their jobs, the University of Illinois administration refuses to bargain the issue with the members of the Graduate Employees Organization, a local of the American Federation of Teachers, even though under Illinois labor law the GEO is the recognized bargaining agent for graduate employees.
The University administration claims that in a time of financial constraint, it needs “flexibility” to undermine a basic condition of graduate employment. It’s true, of course, that the University is financially constrained, given the decline in government support for public higher education. But how the University responds to that environment is a choice. Trying to balance your budget by taking essentials away from the weakest people in the food chain is a choice — a choice often made, but still a choice.
The financial constraints that the University faces reflect the same skewed national priorities. Sons and daughters of America’s working families are being sent to get blown up in Afghanistan’s civil war at the same time that America is breaking its promise of universal access to education at home. We’re enacting trade and investment agreements to allow corporate America to send high-wage manufacturing jobs out of the country — the kinds of jobs where American workers could once comfortably support a family, having only obtained a high school diploma. That’s why you need to go to college, the kids are told. But when they arrive at the schoolhouse door, they’re told to come back with tens of thousands of dollars. Something has to give.
What if President Obama decided not to send $40 billion worth of new troops to Afghanistan? How much money could that free up for education in Illinois? Illinois has about 4.2% of the U.S. population, so not escalating in Afghanistan could bring Illinois a $1.7 billion dollar windfall. If the federal government dropped an extra $1.7 billion a year on the State of Illinois, do you think that the state legislature and the University administration could find it in their hearts to protect the ability of graduate employees to complete their degrees? I think they could.
But regardless of what the federal government does, University of Illinois administrators still have a moral responsibility not to balance the budget on the backs of the weak. If you’d like to weigh in, instructions are here.
Robert Naiman is National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy. Naiman also edits the daily Just Foreign Policy news summary and blogs at the Web site of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first published in the Just Foreign Policy blog on 16 November 2009. See, also, Cary Nelson, “GEO Strike: Activist Union Defends Education from Corporate University” (16 November 2009).