For years, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition–United Electric (IGWC-UE) union attempted to work with Indiana University administrators to secure improvements in pay and health care benefits, reduce overbearing workloads, ensure protections for international students, and end burdensome fees that reduce our already meager yearly salaries by around 10 percent. Instead, the administration denied the coalition any meaningful change, saying that our relationship to the university is primarily educational. We shouldn’t expect a living wage, their argument goes, but should instead rely on family, friends, and spouses for financial support while we build our academic portfolio.
Now, after an overwhelming vote earlier this month of 1,008 to 23, the graduate workers at Indiana University are on strike for union recognition.
The administration wants us to believe that our work is not critical to the operation of the university. But when graduate workers teach two or three classes a semester, perform world-class research on which future grant applications are based—many of them even written by graduate workers—and do the other little, necessary things that make their departments function, they know at their core that this is deception.
For years, the separation of graduate workers on IU’s campus made it difficult to organize. But you can only ignore your material conditions for so long before you end up facing the consequences of being overworked and underpaid: anxiety, malnourishment, isolation, burnout, stress, and a litany of problems that graduate workers at Indiana University and other institutions across the country face. Without the organizing efforts of the IGWC-UE, the graduate workers would have remained isolated.
The union-busting tactics of the administration escalated over the past few months as the IGWC-UE began exploring the option of a strike. IU created a complaint form for undergraduates to report striking graduate instructors. It implied that withholding students’ grades could cause Pell grant recipients to lose their funding. It threatened to fire more than 1,000 graduate workers who have engaged in the ongoing strike. The new provost, Rahul Shrivastav, promised funds to pay faculty for covering the labor being withheld by the graduate workers. It has become clear that this is a battle not just for the sake of graduate workers but also for the integrity of public education and higher learning. The conditions of graduate workers directly affect the undergraduate experience: If a graduate instructor has to take on an extra job to afford rent or they have too many students or sections, their students will have a worse educational experience.
Provost Shrivastav started with the alleged intention of wanting to help solve these problems. He hoped to build camaraderie with graduate workers by decrying the actions of the administrators over the past 10 years, but his inaction and continued denial of the reality of graduate worker conditions have shown that his administration wishes to bring more of the same. In his first few weeks, Provost Shrivastav organized a series of “listening sessions” where students were to come and discuss the problems they were facing with a suite of deans alongside the provost himself. At the first such event, students inquired again and again why the university would not recognize a union, why they would not be willing to pay a living wage, and why they have not taken input from graduate workers, faculty, or staff on shaping their Covid-19 policies.
The Provost claimed to be open-minded, but was confrontational in most of his responses, asking if there were any graduate workers who had concerns or questions unrelated to the unionization effort. He was hoping to find band-aid solutions—more ice cream socials and a free lunch every six months—rather than higher wages and union recognition.
During this first listening session, administrators claimed that a union would only complicate relationships between individual graduate workers and their advisors, and that there were already official channels through which the graduate workers could address their problems. The primary channel is the graduate and professional student government (GPSG), a parliamentary body that can pass resolutions, but these are simply recommendations. The administration has no obligation to actually act on them.
The IGWC-UE has tried for too long to use the official university channels to address our problems, and repeatedly found no changes were made. Both the GPSG and the undergraduate student government have passed resolutions recommending that the university recognize the IGWC-UE, though they have ignored these as well. This week, the GPSG overwhelmingly passed a resolution of no confidence in the leadership of the Provost Shrivastav. Allowing graduate workers a seat at a table where binding resolutions can be passed is the only path forward that ensures that the problems faced by graduate workers today, or in five years, can actually be solved. Otherwise, the university will continue to make hollow promises.
Despite an insistence that they care deeply about the undergraduates and their education, the administration’s refusal to improve the conditions of graduate workers shows that the university system is primarily concerned with enriching itself, rather than being a place for exploration, discovery, and sharing of ideas, where workers are treated with dignity. Through collective actions and organizing, thousands of faculty, grad students, and staff can finally push back against the exploitation of graduate student workers. United we bargain, divided we beg.