- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Graduate workers at Indiana University went on strike this morning in response to the administration’s continued refusal to recognize their union, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition–United Electrical Workers (IGWC-UE). Recognition strikes are uncommon in recent years and, taking place as this one does in a state where public sector workers have few rights (though the same could be said of all Indiana workers, living as they do in a right-to-work state), it’s a show of strength intended to demonstrate that the union has not only majority support among the school’s estimated 2,500 graduate workers but majority participation in a high-stakes collective action.
When the union held a strike-authorization vote over the weekend, the result was 1,008 in favor, 23 against, meaning 97.8 percent of ballots cast were in favor of striking. Now, the workers have walked off the job, with undergraduates staging a walkout in solidarity at noon today and a number of faculty backing the workers’ demand for recognition against the administration’s intransigence. While workers hope for a quick resolution, they say that they’re prepared to strike at least through April 19 and longer if necessary.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Cole Nelson, an IGWC-UE member and first-year PhD student in IU’s media studies school, about what led to today’s strike, the demands driving the organizing, and where the action fits into a broader wave of labor organizing in higher education.
IU graduate workers were organizing before you decided to unionize. Let’s start with that history.
The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, which is spearheading the union drive at IU, first launched with an “End the Fees” campaign in the fall of 2019. That campaign called for an end to mandatory and international student fees for graduate workers at IU. For graduate workers who earn a wage from the university by performing various forms of labor, fees constitute a pay cut: workers receive their stipends and then immediately have to return a significant portion of those fees back to the university. We’ve also seen those fees increase exponentially over the past decade or so.
The End the Fees campaign was an attempt to gather support for getting rid of this absurd bureaucratic nightmare of facilitating the university’s funding through our own wages. It gathered quite significant support in a very short amount of time, and by January of 2020, we had over two thousand signatures on a petition calling for an end to these fees. We marched those signatures over to a meeting with the vice provost of graduate education, David Daleke. About fifty IGWC representatives sat in on a meeting with Daleke in which we advocated for an end to these fees.
While he did commit to more meetings with representatives of the Graduate Workers Coalition, that never culminated in much; it began a now nearly three-year history of administrators ignoring or sidestepping graduate workers’ demands for better access to university resources, better working conditions, and better pay. So, through those acts of refusal, it became increasingly apparent that the best way to secure the dignity that we’re looking for in both education and in working conditions is through a union for graduate workers that can effectively advocate and bring about meaningful change.
Your union is UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), which is the same union as MIT’s graduate workers, who just won an NLRB election. How did you choose UE?
We decided on that after exploring a variety of unions. Since the coalition’s inception, we’ve largely relied on the volunteer efforts of graduate workers who are dedicated to seeing meaningful change here on campus. And we found that UE was the most persistent union in sharing that same vision of the importance and centrality of rank-and-file workers in their own union representation and bargaining process. After a series of conversations, it became evident that UE was a very significant, meaningful, and effective partnership for us.
You have a supermajority of union cards signed — 1,750 people have signed cards — and yet, the administration isn’t recognizing the union. They’re helped by the specifics of Indiana law, which is weak on public sector workers’ rights in addition to being right-to-work. So, what’s your plan for winning recognition, and how are you operating in such an anti-worker context?
It’s true that we’re in a legal framework that is not very hospitable to public sector employees, or any employees. Early on, it was apparent to us that we need to compel our employer to voluntarily recognize the union and provide an institutional framework for a persistent bargaining relationship. As we’ve seen time and time again, the university, as with most bosses when faced with this sort of organized call for union representation, is adamant on denying us that right. That’s where the strike becomes increasingly crucial for us — not out of any desire to strike but out of necessity to compel the university to recognize us. While it would be nice to have a legal framework to which we can appeal, that simply doesn’t exist for us in the state of Indiana. Given that, we rely on the organized collective support of our demands. That is ultimately how we’re going to secure a union for graduate workers.
Recognition strikes are arduous fights, but you all voted almost unanimously to conduct one. How did you build up to the level of internal strength required to conduct this strike?
There was not much work that needed to be done, which is the university’s fault. Almost every graduate worker I talked to during our End the Fees campaign, you just say the word “fees,” and you’ve unleashed a wave of fury. To find that amount of support was not all that difficult.
In terms of building an organization that can properly represent graduate workers from a range of different departments across campus, it’s been a lot of study of the context of each specific department, learning the context within which graduate workers are working and living in their disciplines, and finding a commonality among those differences.
That culminated in our union platform, which is a five-point platform: a minimum living wage for all graduate workers, annual raises that are fixed to inflation, equity for our international students — the university is often quite dismissive of them, and also financially wrings international students dry — an adequate grievance procedure, and improved and secured benefits for graduate workers. These were concerns that were shared across the board with graduate workers. Recognizing that, we wanted an organization that can advocate for those shared concerns. We have union representatives established in more than forty departments represented by over one hundred union representatives, and each union rep facilitates conversations within their departments, and as we move to codify our union, we’re beginning to put together a bargaining committee, too.
I saw a statement from the IU administration asserting that graduate workers receive $50,000 in compensation, but that was calculated by including various benefits. What is the actual pay for graduate workers?
The majority of departments are at or below $18,000. In the time since we announced the possibility of a strike, the university also quite serendipitously announced a new salary floor, which raises everyone to $18,000 — though by every estimate, that is still well below the cost of living for Monroe County, where Bloomington is situated. It is also the first raise that graduate workers in many departments have seen in nearly a decade. So, it’s clear that there’s a disparity of resources when it comes to administrator salaries on the one hand, and funding for education and funding for graduate workers on the other.
What’s the relationship between the union and the administration going into this strike?
The administration is not facilitating any conversations directly between this organization and themselves. They’re essentially treating it as a nonexistent shadow organization. Sometimes they’ll make offhand remarks about how “a few graduate students are considering a strike” to diminish the overwhelming support that there is for a union of graduate workers and for a strike.
Your strike comes amid a broader wave of organizing in higher ed. I mentioned the MIT unionization vote, but there have been a number of new unions in higher ed, among not only graduate workers but also faculty. How do you see yourselves within that broader trend, and what do you hope this recognition strike contributes to that movement?
Strikes for recognition are not very common, and we’re hoping to contribute this as another means of unionization in states that are hostile or inhospitable to organized labor. On a broader movement basis, that’s the significance of what we’re attempting here in Indiana. The fact that a union can and will be secured without the intervention of a labor board and instead via the organized support and collective efforts of graduate workers themselves is a major contribution. I also see us as in alignment with other graduate unions that are advocating for the betterment of education — not just of graduate students, but of students across the board — by advocating for better funding and resources provided to education. It’s a push for a more democratic university that isn’t run like a corporate business, that isn’t run like a bureaucracy, but has at its core the interests of the students and the community. That’s what we’re trying to establish here. We’re trying to funnel money away from the central administration and into the classrooms.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
There’s been an active process of degradation of education here at Indiana University. Over the past ten years, we’ve seen salaries for administrators go up 124 percent, whereas many graduate workers have not seen a single raise. And, in comparison, faculty wages have increased by only about 6 percent over that same ten-year period. That displays the priorities of the university as it is currently run. Our mandate is to ensure that that funding prioritizes students and prioritizes education. That is our primary goal, and we see a union as offering a means of securing that goal.