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Apr 11, 22

Why Graduate Workers at Indiana University in Bloomington Are Set to Strike

Around a thousand graduate workers at Indiana University are set to strike, after fighting for years for livable wages and an end to astronomical fees. What follows is a report from Bloomington as the strike is set to kick off next week. 

Our efforts at unionization underscore a determination to see Indiana University serve those who, on a day-to-day basis, make the University function as a bastion of higher education. However, a quick glimpse at the financial portfolio of IU – following an overwhelmingly successful bicentennial campaign which brought in over $2 billion of philanthropic funds – as well as a review of the salaries of the highest-paid university administrators makes apparent that the University does not share this vision. Instead, like most international enterprises today, the University seeks to benefit those on the top, and further degrade those who have been forced to the bottom.

In September 2019, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition (IGWC) went public with a campaign calling for an end to student fees for IU graduate workers. With stipends already low, the several hundred dollars in fees that grad workers have to pay back to the University is effectively a pay cut, rerouting wages right back to the employer under the guise of mandatory and international fees. The End the Fees campaign mounted in 2019 gathered the signatures of some 2,000 individuals, all calling for the University to commit to abolishing unnecessary, burdensome fees. Despite a meeting between IGWC representatives and Vice Provost of Graduate Education, David Daleke, where the latter agreed to continual meetings, the University remained stalwart and refused to sit down with its graduate workers to discuss real change.

The ongoing lack of accountability, and the complete negligence of graduate working conditions by the Indiana University administration, led graduate workers to engage a fee strike in the Spring of 2021. Over 800 graduate workers pledged to withhold payment of their international and mandatory fees for the extent of the semester. Hundreds of graduate workers picketed, protested, and proclaimed the need for a revisioning of higher education that prioritized the livelihood of its workers. And the University’s response: nothing. In fact, worse than nothing. The former Provost of IU Bloomington, Lauren Robel, circulated a 14-page, typo-ridden document denouncing the demands for an end to student fees and claiming that graduate workers – who, to her and the rest of the administration, are actually just students pretending to be workers – take home a net-total of $50,000 in income. That is, if you include tuition remission and health benefits, which are notoriously difficult to pay rent and groceries with…

The arguments couldn’t stand the light of day, let alone the mounting fury of graduate workers and faculty members at IU. (Needless to say, Lauren Robel did not continue in her position as Provost the following year.) Regardless, the IU Administration remained unmoved from its stance of dismissal and denunciation of graduate worker demands. With the lukewarm welcome of a new Provost at IU Bloomington, Rahul Shrivastav, and a new IU President, Pamela Whitten, the University postured itself as if it were now finally going to listen to its students, hear their concerns, and open their hearts to the worries of the IU community. Of course, listening does not translate into action. And action is what we require.

The University has been unable to act on our demands, let alone even listen to them, ultimately leading to graduate workers taking the next step on their own: unionizing. In the Summer of 2021, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition joined with the United Electrical Workers (IGWC-UE) to begin a campaign to secure union recognition for IU graduate workers. Since May 2021, the IGWC-UE has been collecting union cards from the 2,500 graduate workers at IU. In December, nearly 1,600 graduate workers – a supermajority of the designated bargaining unit – had signed union cards, and the IGWC-UE submitted that number to the IU Board of Trustees, calling for an official path toward unionization.

Two months later, in February, the University got back to us: “the university must deny IGWC’s demand for recognition of UE.” What’s more, the University was quick to remind us of the unfavorable conditions for collective bargaining as public employees in the state of Indiana: “neither state nor federal law confers a duty to recognize or bargain with a union seeking to collectively represent public sector employees at the university.” While there is no law conferring the duty to recognize and bargain with a union, there is likewise no law dismissing or undermining that obligation either. While the legal framework for union recognition in Indiana is certainly lacking, what is ultimately lacking is the University’s will to recognize a union. There is simply no desire on the part of IU Administration to live up to their supposed practice of “shared governance” by bringing graduate workers into the decision-making process. And if they won’t recognize a union out of their purported benevolence, then we will force recognition through exerted collective action. We will strike.

Like all bosses in the face of an insurmountable challenge, IU administration has resorted to groundless threats and divisive attempts to split faculty from graduate workers. But, fully abiding by the adage that the best organizer is the boss, every attempt to sabotage a pending strike has resulted in growing support for the graduate workers from a range of places: IU faculty and undergraduates, alumni, state representatives, celebrities, and local trade unions. While there may be two Rahul Shrivastavs in positions of authority at IU, there are hundreds, if not thousands of us, and we are taking matters into our own hands. The force of our demands rides on our collective strength, and we have never been so strong. IU has taken no heed of the many opportunities we have provided to recognize a union of graduate workers openly and democratically. Instead, IU wishes to fight and, so, should be prepared to lose.

See you on the picket line.

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