On April 10, members of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition—United Electrical Workers (IGWC-UE) at Indiana University in Bloomington voted overwhelmingly to strike in an effort to force the university to formally recognize their graduate workers union. The union, which is affiliated with the United Electrical Workers, comprises a bargaining unit of about 2,500 workers, with around 1,700 signing union cards since the organizing drive went public last year. While that number of workers in favor of unionizing greatly exceeds the threshold (30% of workers at a given shop) to trigger a union election by the National Labor Relations Board, high-ranking administrative officials at Indiana University have refused to voluntarily recognize the union and even threatened to retaliate against workers if they went on strike.

Striking workers, as Colleen Flaherty notes in Inside Higher Ed, “are asking for better pay, to help bridge the gap between minimum stipends that were until recently under $18,000 and the current estimated cost of living for a single person in Bloomington (some $26,600, after taxes). They also want to see the elimination of student fees that cut into their stipends, to the tune of $1,350 per year for US students and more for international students.” 

“We do love our work and really want to help our students succeed. On top of all that you have to worry about living in poverty, and you constantly have to work that double shift. It frustrates us because we wanna do the work that we love, but we’re not able to do the best that we can,” graduate worker-organizer and IGWC-UE representative Mike McCarthy said. “These are not livable conditions. It’s not a livable wage.”

As many graduate workers report struggling to make ends meet with the compensation they receive from the university, the additional pressure imposed by student fees has been a major sticking point. In fact, in the Spring 2021 semester, graduate workers called for a strike to end the onerous fees that, according to data compiled on the IGWC-UE website, have increased dramatically in recent years, along with (but far outpacing) average rents in Bloomington. At the time of the strike, the Graduate Workers Coalition posted a statement laying out their reasons for walking off the job, and they didn’t mince words: 

We are tired of isolation, fed up with poverty wages. We are tired of having our hard work taken for granted, especially now, as we perform our labor under extraordinary circumstances with no additional compensation. And, more than anything else, we are fed up with paying to work here. As everyone knows by now, we are expected to pay over $1400 in “mandatory fees” every year. This “pay to work” model of employment adversely affects graduate recruitment, further marginalizes graduate students who are already experiencing financial precarity, and adds unnecessarily to the burden of stress and exhaustion that already accompanies graduate education. With the fees increasing once again since last semester, it has become clear that simply presenting our situation to university administration has not prompted them to make any meaningful changes. And we’ve had enough. We are collectively refusing to pay these exploitative fees.

At the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), 1,500 graduate workers with the Graduate Employees Organization are also on strike after being engaged in a draw-out process of bargaining a contract with the university administration for over a year. Union members at UIC are also demanding a reduction of costly mandatory fees, which reportedly amount to 10% of workers’ 9-month salaries.

On top of demands for the university administration to recognize the graduate union, to eliminate student fees, and to increase stipends so they can sufficiently cover the cost of living in Bloomington, graduate workers at Indiana are demanding greater protections for international students, expanded benefits (like more robust mental healthcare coverage), as well as a formal procedure for filing grievances with the university. 

The IGWC-UE is currently in its second week on strike, and an overwhelming 97% of voting members opted on Tuesday to extend the strike for at least another week. Boasting an impressive list of endorsements on the union website, the strike has garnered widespread support from campus community organizations, including undergraduate and faculty groups, political and labor organizations, and the wider community in recent weeks. 

The fact that a near-total majority of members first voted to authorize and then voted to extend the strike has seemingly reaffirmed graduate workers’ conviction that a supermajority of them want to exercise their right to unionize and that the university administration is actively opposing the democratic will of its workforce. “We’re convinced that if [the university administration] were to recognize our right to form a union that we would form a union overnight,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got a supermajority of [grad student workers] who have signed cards already.” 

That conviction has been bolstered even more by the support graduate workers have received from the wider campus community in the midst of this fight for recognition. As grad workers prepared to authorize their strike, they gathered signatures from over 500 faculty members and department heads pledging to remain neutral during the course of the strike, including not crossing the picket line to grade outstanding assignments or assign others to complete grad workers’ duties. Undergraduate students also walked out of their classes in solidarity once the strike began, holding picket lines outside of Ballantine Hall on campus.

Beyond the gates at IU, grad workers from across the country have sent messages of support and solidarity to the members of the IGWC-UE, from MIT and Fordham University to the striking graduate workers at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “I’m really moved by grad workers across the country who are showing support for us,” said Simon Luo, a 7th-year PhD student at IU working in the political science department. 

Grad workers with the IGWC-UE also recognize that their fight extends far beyond the borders of their own campus. “We are already in a big movement. Our big movement is part of a large labor trend in the United States,” Luo said, referencing the recent union wins at Amazon and Starbucks. “That’s something that’s really exciting for us.”

THE ADMINISTRATION CAN’T TAKE THE HINT 

In contrast to many unionization efforts in which employers try to vigorously paint unions as an “outside” “third party” that a majority of workers don’t want, the overwhelming support for IGWC-UE means the IU administration can’t reasonably make that argument. What high-ranking administrators are doing instead, as has so often been the case at higher education institutions, is directly denying graduate workers’ status as workers and, thus, their right to organize.  

In the days leading up to the strike authorization, the university administration continued to send messages to faculty and alumni urging them to stand in opposition to the union drive. James C. Wimbash, dean of The University Graduate School at IU, penned an op-ed on April 8 in The Herald-Times in which he plainly laid out the administration’s position on IGWC-UE: 

“Indiana University believes a graduate student employee union is not in the interests of our graduate students or of our state. We are not anti-union—we work productively with AFSCME and CWA, who represent some IU staff—but unionization is counterproductive to addressing the critical needs of our students. This is most effectively and successfully accomplished through their faculty advisors, academic departments and schools.”

If you didn’t catch that through all the academic doublespeak, members of the IU administration continue to stress the importance of the direct management relationship between student employees and their employers at the various levels through which they’re employed. At the same time, administrators like Dr. Wimbash continued to maintain that the primary role of the graduate workers is that of a student. “Injecting a union into these relationships would create the antithesis of why students pursue their graduate degrees—changing the focus from full-time education to part-time work. In essence, it would alter their status from students to employees.”

“They’re holding that we’re not workers,” McCarthy said. “That we don’t have a right to unionize.” 

The NLRB has waffled regularly on whether it should classify graduate student workers as employees in the last two decades, with classifications being granted and rescinded multiple times over that period. (These rulings have applied to graduate workers at private universities, which fall under the NLRB’s purview; however, the provisions for employees at a public university like Indiana can vary by state.) In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities did not have the right to unionize because they “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Even though this ruling was overturned in 2016 by the NLRB—the Board determined that the overlapping student and employee relationships graduate workers have with a university don’t negate one another—that hasn’t stopped upper-level Indiana University administrators from using the same talking points to justify busting the graduate workers union. 

On top of insisting that graduate student-workers are more students than workers, upper-level administrators like provost Rahul Shrivastav argue that organizing into unions would diminish the role of the “student” in their relations with faculty advisors and department heads. However, according to reporting in the last couple of years, “Decades of survey-based research shows the vast majority of public university faculty with unionized student workers say collective bargaining doesn’t hinder advising graduate students, developing mentor relationships, or freely exchanging ideas with students.” 

As the strike continues, the administration has attempted to pressure faculty members to retaliate against the grad workers they work with, which has caused confusion and resentment across departments. “There is a hell of a lot of pressure on faculty [from the higher administration] to not cancel class… to act as scabs, frankly, and to report their graduate students. Most of the faculty really resent that,” Alex Lichtenstein, professor of History at IU, told TRNN. The administration has sent guidance to departments in the last week reminding them of their responsibility to uphold punitive policies in regards to the graduate students in their employ, and provost Shrivastav has signaled multiple times that the university would bring harsh consequences for any graduates who go on strike. 

“They’re treating us like we’re middle management,” Lichtenstein said. He found that to be particularly ironic given the administration’s insistence on keeping graduate workers classified as students first, not employees. Indeed, the administration appears to be attempting to have it both ways: first, denying graduates’ right to organize by emphasizing that they are students, not workers; then, threatening to retaliate against strikers for disrupting the functioning of the university by not doing the jobs that they apparently don’t have. 

In recent days, the provost Shrivastav has maintained his refusal to recognize the union and has instead indicated that he was creating a new task force for graduate student relations. In an April 18 press release, the workers of the IGCW-UE responded to the formation of the new task force, saying that they found it “strange that Provost Shrivastav is creating a new task force for graduate education while ignoring all currently existing mechanisms of graduate student input.” They also pointed out that multiple student and faculty councils have passed resolutions that overwhelmingly support the unionization effort currently underway, and urged the provost to come to the table and listen. “We ask the Provost to stop lying about listening to the GPSG [Graduate and Professional Student Government]. He does not listen,” the release said. “The question is: Why won’t the Provost listen?”

Even before the strike began in earnest, it’s clear that upper-level administrators at the university harbored a growing resentment toward the union effort and workers’ demands. Now, however, the growing strength of the union and its support network are both exposing the dividing lines on campus. 

“It’s everybody on campus versus the administration at this point,” McCarthy said. “There’s really no organized support for the administration from anybody else on campus.” Despite the challenges and threats from higher administration, the graduate workers remain committed in their fight for recognition. “We have to cause a disruption,” first-year PhD student and union representative Cole Nelson said. “We have to ensure that the university has no other choice but to recognize us.”

Mel Buer

Mel Buer is an independent researcher, educator, and freelance movement journalist based in Omaha, Nebraska. She previously reported on local protests and movements during the 2020 uprising and is researching and writing a book on radical media for Or Books. Follow her on Twitter.