Thousands of unionizing graduate student-workers at Indiana University Bloomington are in the midst of a vital fight for union recognition and the future of public higher education in Indiana.
Although 70% of the 2,500 graduate workers at IU have signed cards in support of unionizing as the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition affiliated with United Electrical Workers, IU administrators have refused to recognize their union or follow the university’s own policy that grants the workers the right to a union election.
Facing poverty wages, fierce opposition from the IU administration, and hostile labor laws in Indiana, the unionizing graduate workers took matters into their own hands by going on strike for four weeks in April and May of this year to put tuition dollars back into the classroom. The workers continue their organizing and plan to intensify their fight in the coming months.
The fight for a living wage is a fight for quality education
Graduate workers at IU conduct groundbreaking research and teach nearly 1,000 courses. Their labor has built IU into a world-class institution, and the university cannot function without their important work. Yet, while graduate teachers and researchers struggle to make rent and buy food, IU’s wealthy administrators enjoy skyrocketing salaries and refuse to even meet with graduate workers to discuss their basic demand for a living wage.
As with all teachers, the graduate workers’ fight for a living wage is also ultimately a fight for quality education for their students. The graduate workers are demanding first and foremost that the university prioritize its educational mission by recognizing their union and paying its teachers — the graduate workers — a living wage.
“I work three jobs to scrape together enough to pay my bills and my work suffers because I constantly have to prioritize living expenses over supplies,” shared Kathryn Combs, a member of IGWC-UE, in a union testimonial.
As Sam Smucker, another IGWC-UE member, stated in a press release: “The IU Administration is systematically defunding education and instead shifting those funds to a class of high-paid administrators whose job it seems to be to cut educational programs.”
Rather than resign themselves to poverty wages, worsening learning outcomes for their students, and an intransigent boss, the determined graduate workers defied IU administration by voting nearly unanimously to go on strike starting April 13.
Evolution of the strike
The initial one-week strike was authorized by an overwhelming majority of 97.8%, which was extended another week by a reauthorization vote with a similar margin. The strike went on to continue through four weeks with reauthorization votes for weeks three and four of 95% and 97.4%, respectively.
The overwhelming support and unity of striking grad workers at IU was met with callous treatment by the administration who continued to refuse to negotiate. Provost Rahul Shrivastav and Vice Provost Eliza Pavalko went on to threaten that graduate workers who did not complete their duties would be fired. However, despite the fearmongering by the administration, IGWC-UE workers remained steadfast in their commitment to the strike, declaring a grading strike going into finals week.
“We will not be intimidated by threats,” declared Huixin Tian, a member of IGWC-UE, in a press release during the third week of the strike. “Instead, we are going to make them recognize our strength and our importance to this university.”
After striking for four weeks, IGWC-UE voted on May 9 to strategically pause their strike until the Fall term, submit grades for this Spring, and regroup to intensify the fight in the coming months. Graduate workers voted to remove all courses off of the online system used by IU over the Summer to gain full control of the grades and assignments for the hundreds of classes they teach in the fall term. The fall strike will also be expanded to include Research Assistants.
Solidarity among workers
Throughout the strike, IGWC-UE received a strong showing of support from the IU community. Undergraduates, alumni, and faculty stood together with grad workers fighting for their right to union recognition.
As undergraduate Evie Hill said in a press release, “Graduate workers’ working conditions are our learning conditions. Right now our tuition dollars are lining the pockets of the IU administration rather than going back into the classroom. IGWC-UE will safeguard the future of education at IU.”
Alumni shared similar concerns about their donation money not making it back into the classroom. As Physics alum Justin Vasel shared in a press release, “The money we donate as alumni is not going to the educational mission of the University. Until the administration agrees to negotiate with graduate student workers in good faith, I and over 860 other IUB alumni have pledged to withhold donations to the University.”
Additionally, faculty convened a Special Faculty Meeting during which faculty members expressed their opposition to the way the IU admin has engaged with the union, and demanded that the Board of Trustees change course.
IU graduate workers are bravely fighting back in the face of a staunchly anti-union boss. During their strike, the workers dialed up the pressure enough to win a one-time 5% raise from the administration and a raise in the minimum salary for some graduate workers. But such concessions are a common union-busting technique by employers to squash union momentum while maintaining unilateral power to exploit their workers. Indeed, IGWC-UE workers are determined to continue and intensify their fight until they win union recognition and secure permanent decision-making power over their working conditions at IU.
They set an important example for all workers: to meaningfully improve our situation, the path forward is for workers to organize in the workplace and fight back against the bosses to take what we deserve.
You can support IU graduate workers by donating to their strike fund.