Not many of Michelle Chan's co-workers at the Urbana diner where she works know that the 26-year-old is a doctoral student. And most customers don't know that while juggling dinner plates, Chan is also quietly juggling dissertation duties.
The financial stress of being a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was a large part of Chan's decision to take a leave of absence from the school in January. Some family members back in New York urgently needed financial help, and she needed flexibility. Even though she taught three classes as a graduate teaching assistant and tutored, she simply was not making enough, she said.
So Chan joined fellow graduate employees to organize for a new contract. That struggle moved closer to resolution late last week, when the roughly 2,700 workers represented by the university's Graduate Employees Organization overwhelmingly voted to ratify a tentative contract agreement.
After a nearly two-week strike -- the longest in the history of the graduate employees union at the university -- 98 percent of the group voted to ratify the proposed contract.
"This really means a lot to me," Chan, who is from New York, said of the tentative agreement, during a brief break from work. "We as graduate students already don't have enough time. Bargaining was almost like another job in and of itself."
A simple majority of the group, composed mainly of graduate and teaching assistants, was needed to approve the proposed contract, which will last five years.
The tug of war between the university's administration and its graduate workers went on for nearly a year, and represented employees had worked without an agreement since August. They ultimately walked off the job Feb. 26, and hundreds of classes on the campus had to be canceled or moved as a result.
Key to the provisional deal were tuition waivers, which would be a guaranteed part of the proposed contract for current and future graduate classes for the duration of the contract. The benefit is the primary reason many can afford to pursue graduate-level studies at U. of I., the bargaining unit contended.
Before Thursday's tentative contract, tuition waivers had been addressed in a "side letter," or addendum, to the contract -- with a separate set of conditions. Under the new deal, tuition waivers are part of the contract as an article, union leaders said. A copy of the proposed deal was not publicly available Friday, union leaders said.
"It actually strengthens our tuition waiver language," said Gus Wood, the union's co-president. "Our new tuition waiver article states clearly that if you become a (teaching assistant) or (graduate assistant) you are guaranteed a tuition waiver, plain and simple. And now, because it's an article, it can't die like a side letter could."
Administrators initially wanted the option to modify waiver conditions for budgetary and programming reasons in the future, but said that currently enrolled students would keep the waivers in effect at the time they began their studies. That could have had an adverse effect on future graduate students, who might have seen a decrease in those benefits, union leadership said.
Andreas C. Cangellaris, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, praised the deal, saying it would "ensure graduate employees at Illinois will have the financial and personal security to focus fully on the academic pursuits and aspirations that brought them here. And this agreement also guarantees our faculty the flexibility to ensure the future quality and competitiveness of our academic programs."
Though the addition of "guaranteed" waiver language is one of the union's biggest victories, according to Wood, administrators and the union were able to secure a few other wins too.
Under the conditional deal, wages would go up 4.5 percent in the first year it is effective, and 2 percent in the second and third years. More of their insurance premiums would be covered, and, in a first, 25 percent of coverage would be provided for one dependent -- something not offered to graduate employees in the past.
Most graduate employees were happy about the potential deal. During the two weeks they withheld labor, they said, many spent long days picketing and organizing sit-in activity in front of Chancellor Robert Jones' and President Timothy Killeen's offices.
"The last couple of weeks were intense," said Marilia Correa, a fifth-year doctoral student studying Latin-American history. "I was on the ground organizing from 7:30 in the morning, when we started the picket lines, to 7 in the afternoon."
And while Correa said she was happy with the decision, she was still somewhat "ashamed and embarrassed" for the school's administration.
"Graduate workers had to withhold labor, picket and shut down entire buildings for almost two weeks, and occupy the offices of the president and the provost, for the administration to come to their senses and agree with our propositions," the 29-year-old said in an email. "And we were not asking for much.
"We pressured them to agree to our proposals because this university would not be able to survive much longer without our labor. I am still ashamed of UIUC's administration because they did not change their minds about us, they were just pressured into agreeing with us."
Michelle Chan agrees, but is taking a moment to both rest and to revel in the anticipated win, she said.
"It's good to be able to take a step back," she said.