How “More Cowbell, More Cowbell” Worked! Disruptive Tactics and the Outcome of the UIUC Labor Protest

by Amirhossein Teimouri, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

from Critical Mass, Volume 44, Issue 1

In late February 2018, I found myself joining fellow graduate students in a strike on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The strike at the UIUC was a rare opportunity for a student-led labor movement to rise against the corporatization of the public education. Although this was a campus-wide movement without nation-wide repercussions, participants and activists integrated the movement to a broader nation-wide public education unrest.

In early February 2018, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), a labor union consisting of teaching assistants and graduate assistants at the UIUC, announced a strike effective February 26 unless GEO’s bargaining team and the administration agreed to a fair contract. The threat of a strike occurred after nearly 11 months of bargaining between GEO and the administration with little success. The GEO’s goals included protecting tuition waivers, achieving fair wages, and health care (Anda and Edwards 2018; Gaines 2018). These goals were at the heart of the general battle for public education, which has come under attacks in recent years (e.g., Strauss 2015).

Over the twelve-day long strike (February 26 to March 8), graduate students picketed six buildings, rallied every day at noon and 5 p.m., and engaged in multiple disruptive actions on campus. I joined the picket lines at noon and 5 p.m. rallies almost every day. Organized by the members, every noon, on average 300 people marched across the campus after hours of disruptive tactics such as picketing, chanting, drumming, etc, with the end of the day marked by smaller evening protests. As the strike grew longer, new symbols and slogans were added to the framing and tactical repertoires of the strike. On March 6, I saw a huge pre-Franco Spain flag. Inspired by the Latin America’s Cacerolazos, another graduate student showed up in one of the noon rallies with a small frying pan. The tactical repertoire not only became more diverse but more disruptive as the strike stretched into a second week. Starting March 6, graduate students occupied the president’s office when we were rallying in front of the president’s mansion at the 5 p.m. rally (Rhodes 2018). In the same day, GEO members occupied space outside the provost’s office.

Some of the main slogans of picketers were: “What is disgusting? Union busting,” and “What is outrageous? Students’ wages.” These slogans reflected the anti-capitalist and anti-corporate university stance of many participants. Strike sympathizers and participants started sharing a local news article about the rising salaries of the highest-paid university employees while the university had a financial crisis (Wurth 2018a). On March 6, one of the speakers of the noon rally shouted that “it [winning the strike] is not harder than destroying white supremacy and capitalism.” Finally, on March 8 at about 11:30 a.m., when I joined a new picket line to picket the English Building, we were told the GEO’s bargaining team and the administration—after about 26 hours of bargaining—reached a tentative agreement for another five years (Wurth 2018b).

Cultural Context and Protest Outcomes

The strike at the UIUC was a self-identified labor movement, though almost all movement participants were graduate students. I never heard anybody identify the strike as a student movement during the protest. Some GEO members, however, claimed that graduate student workers are both students and workers (Anda and Edwards 2018).  

Social movements consequences, notes Jennifer Earl (2004), “are notoriously hard to define.” Movements outcomes include defeat, changes in social values, structural impacts, and policy change (e.g., McCammon et al. 2007; Tarrow 1994). A few studies define successful outcomes as gaining “acceptance and recognition from the state” as well securing “new advantages for constituents” (McVeigh, Welch, and Bjarnason 2003). Although the UIUC strike was a campus-wide movement without nation-wide attention, participants incorporated the movement into a broader nation-wide public education unrest. The strike intended to get a fair contract after almost six years since the last contract between the UIUC and the GEO was signed. In this case, we can show a successful social movement outcome, that is, achieving a fair contract due largely to disruptive tactics.

It is necessary to discuss the cultural context within which the labor protest framing took place, although the strike’s cultural repertoire was not as rich as its tactical repertoire. Many GEO members have a long history of pro-union activism. In May 2016, for example, GEO members, including myself, joined one of the biggest union rallies against Bruce Rauner, the former governor of Illinois, in Springfield (Bott 2016). Finally, we should not forget about the Trump effect. As mentioned above, one of the speakers explicitly associated the strike to capitalism and white supremacy.

References

Anda, Ashli, and Adam Edwards. 2018. “Learning on the Job.” Jacobin. March 15. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/03/uiuc-graduate-union-student-workers-university

Bott, Celeste. 2016. “Buttoned-Up Madigan Pumps Fist In Air At Anti-Rauner Union Rally.” Chicago Tribune. May 18. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-union-rally-illinois-capitol-madigan-met-0519-20160518-story.html

Earl, Jennifer. 2004. “The Cultural Consequences of Social Movements.” Pp. 508-530 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Gaines, Lee V. 2018. “U of I Graduate Workers Strike Hinges on Tuition Waivers.” WILLRadio.tv.online. March 6. Retrieved online April 23, 2019: https://will.illinois.edu/news/story/u-of-i-graduate-workers-continue-strike-over-tuition-waivers

McCammon, Holly J., Courtney Sanders Muse, Harmony D. Newman, Teresa M. Terrell. 2007. “Movement Framing and Discursive Opportunity Structures: The Political Successes of the U.S. Women’s Jury Movements.” American Sociological Review 72(5): 725-749.

McVeigh, Rory, Michael R. Welch, and Thoroddur Bjarnason. 2003. “Hate Crime Reporting As a Successful Social Movement Outcome.” American Sociological Review 68: 843-867.

Rhodes, Dawn. 2018. “Striking U. of I. Grad Student Workers Stage Sit-In at President’s Office.” Chicago Tribune. March 7. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-university-of-illinois-grad-workers-strike-20180307-story.html

Strauss, Valerie. 2015. “Gov. Scott Walker Savages Wisconsin Public Education in New Budget.” The Washington Post. July 13. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/07/13/gov-scott-walker-savages-wisconsin-public-education-in-new-budget/?utm_term=.765349196d83

Tarrow, Sidney G. 1994. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wurth, Julie. 2018a. “On the Money: Salaries Rising at UI.” The News-Gazette. February 4. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2018-02-04/the-money-salaries-rising-ui.html

Wurth, Julie. 2018b. “‘I Think It Is a Fair Agreement,’ UI Provost Says of Deal with GEO.” The News-Gazette. March 8. Retrieved online April 22, 2019: http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2018-03-08/new-i-think-it-fair-agreement-ui-provost-says-deal-with-geo.html