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Attendees of the vote for a graduate student union walk west on Kirkwood Avenue towards Switchyard Brewing Company on April 10, 2022. The vote will decide if the graduate students will go on strike on Wednesday. (Photo: Indiana Daily Student / Ethan Levy)

Indiana University Grad Students Are Trying to Unionize—and They Should!

The striking graduate student workers are doing something all too rare on campuses and in our society: they are joining together to speak up for themselves, and refusing to back down in the face of corporate condescension and bullying.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

As anyone familiar with the operations of higher education in the U.S. knows, graduate students play an indispensable role as workers on campuses across the country.

The corporate officials who run our universities, in league with the Boards of Trustees to whom they are accountable, choose to regard the work being done by graduate students as "professional development" rather than as work.

They work as Graders, Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Classroom Instructors.

Much of the work they do is work that better-paid full-time faculty members once did. But for a variety of reasons, universities have discovered that much of this work can be done much more cost-effectively, i.e., cheaply, by contingent faculty and graduate students. At some universities upwards of 20% or more of the work of undergraduate teaching is being done by graduate students.

The corporate officials who run our universities, in league with the Boards of Trustees to whom they are accountable, choose to regard the work being done by graduate students as "professional development" rather than as work. And they choose to regard the graduate student workers who do this work as students subject to various forms of tutelage and authority rather than as workers capable of speaking and acting for themselves.

The work these workers do is often demanding. And the stipends they are paid for this work are typically insufficient to cover the costs of living in the places where they live, leading many of them to go into debt. And so an increasing number of them are coming to see the work that they do as labor rather than as intellectual growth and professional development, and coming to see themselves as workers who are entitled to the kind of compensation and recognition to which all workers in a decent society are entitled.

These workers are thus freely associating, forming unions to represent and collectively bargain on their behalf, and seeking recognition from the university administrators who are their corporate employers and not their intellectual mentors.

This is happening all across the country,

And it is happening at Indiana University, Bloomington, where I teach and work.

Graduate students here have been trying to organize for years, and they have met with repeated rebuffs by the Provosts who run the campus (of course at the behest of the university President). The rebuffs can be boiled down to this response: 'We hear you, and appreciate your concerns, and we are doing all we can to support our graduate students, but you are not really "workers" and you don't need a union anyway and we are not legally required to recognize your union and so we don't recognize it and to meet with you would be a form of recognition and so we won't meet with you. But we really support our graduate students and talk to them all the time.'

While versions of this rebuff have been sounded numerous times, this year at Indiana University, Bloomington, things have changed in two ways.

First, the long-term President and Provost—both of whom, in different ways, had ascended from the ranks of the faculty—were replaced by a new President and Provost from the outside (the new President, who hired the new Provost, was herself hired under very shady circumstances, and when these serious procedural irregularities were discovered through the investigative reporting of a tenured Law Professor, this professor's e-mail account was investigated and he was subjected to harassment; all of this has been covered in the national media, most notably at the Chronicle; see here.) This new administration, which immediately ordered a retrenchment of IU's COVID-19 policies, has proceeded in a generally imperious way in announcing new priorities that seem more focused on student recruitment and athletic boosterism than on education or faculty governance.

Second, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, seeking affiliation with the United Electrical Workers, has received signed union cards from over 1750 graduate student workers, a supermajority of the relevant bargaining unit. 

As before, all efforts to organize a certification election or to negotiate with IU administration have met with dismissal.

But unlike before, the Coalition recently declared that it intends to strike on April 13 unless its demands for recognition, including the simple recognition involved in a meeting, are met. There demands have not been met or even addressed. And so a strike vote has been taken, and passed by an overwhelming majority. And so a strike is set to begin in less than 48 hours.

A strike on the Indiana campus will be unprecedented. 

The Coalition's demands are reasonable. The administration's refusal to even give the group a serious hearing is not reasonable. And so many faculty have been very supportive of the graduate student workers, who are, after all, our co-workers as well as our students. Roughly four hundred faculty members have signed a "Neutrality Pledge," recognizing the right of graduate student workers to organize and to strike without fear of repercussions regarding their jobs or their academic progress. Roughly twenty departments and programs on campus have also generated "Neutrality Pledges." A faculty group has also sent a letter to the administration asking them to talk with the Coalition leaders so that some mutually agreeable outcome might be reached. Local labor groups have also rallied in support of the Coalition (The group's impressive website contains links to a great deal of information).

And in response, Rahul Shrivastav, the recently-appointed Provost, now in his second month on campus, has doubled down on the administration's refusal to engage the Coalition by adding threats to the repertoire of refusal.

While on February 2, then-Interim Provost John Applegate wrote directly to the Coalition Organizing Committee, refusing to recognize the union or even to speak with its representatives, Provost Shrivastav has pursued a different tack. While he has not deigned to communicate directly with the Coalition, in recent days he has sent an official message to faculty making very plain that the administration regards any strike activity as a "harm" to the university's mission, and that as far as he is concerned, there can be no "neutrality" in this matter. Having side-swiped the hundreds of colleagues who have signed a very public "Neutrality Pledge," he then delivered the coup de gras:

"It's important to note that the Student Academic Appointees Guide outlines the consequences for SAAs who do not fulfill the terms of their SAA agreements. These consequences may include, as stated in the Guide: 

*Suspension from work

*Termination of appointment, including loss of stipend, tuition remission, health insurance, and other SAA-provided benefits 

The Guide further states that Reappointment of Student Academic Appointees is contingent upon, "…satisfactory discharge of duties in previous appointments." Participation in a work stoppage will be in violation of this expectation, and therefore, will result in non-reappointment to future Student Academic Appointments. "

Almost the exact same words appeared, verbatim, in an e-mail sent to graduate student workers by Eliza Pavolka, the Vice-Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs.

The message is clear. Graduate student workers who strike for union recognition will be fired, deprived of all work-related benefits, and barred from any future university employment.

It does not take a doctorate in political science to discern that this is a threat, issued in no uncertain terms.

The almost 1750 adults who have signed union cards are being told that they ought to calm down, appreciate all that the administration is doing for them, cast aside their right of free association, and stop engaging in collective action. And that if they return to the "normality" of their individual student lives, the university will do its best for all concerned.

And this message is being delivered, with contemptuous and contemptible cynicism, as if it is a form of benevolence. As if to say: "You are students, not workers. Grow up and do your homework."

Only a few days later, the university's Vice-Provost for Student Affairs shared this announcement with no sense of irony:

"IU Day is coming! Join us Wednesday, April 20, 2022, to celebrate your love of Indiana University. This worldwide, 24-hour, social-sharing, IU-wearing, gift-giving day of engagement will kick off at midnight, as students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of the university come together across the world in celebration of all things IU. 

How will you show your Hoosier pride on April 20? Wear your cream and crimson? Use the hashtag #IUDay and share your best Hoosier memories? Take a walk on campus? Join an alumni gathering in your city?

Whatever you decide, I hope you will also join me to help care for, engage, support health and safety, and create unity for our students."

"Hoosier pride?" "Cream and crimson?" The Indiana University administration is clearly both clueless and contemptuous. 

Its dismissive response to the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition-United Electrical Workers —both the manner of their response and their absolute refusal to meet—is the response one would expect from a private corporation seeking to bust a union. But Indiana University is not Starbucks or Amazon. It is a historic public institution whose motto is Lux et Veritas—"Light and Truth." 

The administration's closed-mindedness and authoritarianism ill-suits its claim to be a world-class promoter of education and enlightenment. Indeed, it ill-suits its very role as a public university in a democratic society.

The administration would do better to heed the words delivered last week by President Biden in a speech to the North American Building Trades Unions: 

"Union members get higher wages and benefits like healthcare and insurance and paid leave; protections against discrimination and harassment; safer, healthier workplaces.  But there's another reason—the basic American reason: Workers who join a union gain power—the power over the decisions that affect their lives. When you've got a union, workers' voices are heard and heeded.  Unions provide, in one word, democracy in the workplace.  Organizing, joining a union—that's a democratic and democracy action—in action." 

President Biden, who understands the spirit as well as the letter of the National Labor Relations Act, spoke even more emphatically last March, and his words, addressed to the looming Amazon strike, could well have been delivered to IU's President and Provost: "Let me be really clear: It's not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It's not up to an employer to decide that either."

IU's administration insists that it is upholding the importance of education, and acting in the best interest of students, by refusing to recognize the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition- United Electrical Workers.

And in one respect the administration is both honest and correct. For it is educating everyone at Indiana University, and everyone paying attention, about some very important things: the priorities of today's top-down corporate universities; labor relations young academics can expect when they enter the labor market; and the contempt for democracy held by so many of the benighted despots who control our world.

Now that the strike has been called, it is time for the so-called "educators" in higher administration to be educated by the university's graduate student workers, who are determined to be heard and to be recognized, and who have strong support in the community.

The striking graduate student workers at Indiana University are doing something all too rare on campuses and in our society: they are joining together to speak up for themselves, and refusing to back down in the face of corporate condescension and bullying. They are displaying real backbone and real moral seriousness, and everyone on the IU campus and beyond can learn from their example.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey Issac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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