Around 1,000 graduate student workers at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus are on strike to demand the school recognize them as a union. But the school said it has no intention of bargaining with the group – and no legal obligation to do so.
The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition-United Electrical Workers began the week-long strike on Wednesday. The strike includes in-person picket lines and labor education events scattered around campus.
They say with recognition, graduate workers could better bargain for an end to an annual $700 student fee and better wages.
The strike comes after IU denied a petition from roughly 1,600 graduate workers earlier this year asking that the school recognize the union and hold an election per its policy for staff. The university said that’s because the graduate students – who grade papers, teach classes, and conduct research – aren’t traditional employees but "student academic appointees" instead.
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Many of the striking student workers disagree with that characterization.
“We have W2s, we do labor, our official paperwork says we are 0.375 part-time workers, but the administration says we are students first," said Anna Stamm, a graduate student worker.
IU administration has called unionization “counterproductive” and held listening sessions with graduate students this semester. In days leading up to the strike, it announced it would increase stipend payments by 5 percent. But graduate workers said that isn’t nearly enough.
“They didn’t even raise it to go along with inflation," Stamm said. "So we’re still making less than we did however many years ago.”
In recent years, a number of private universities have recognized graduate student worker unions. But as a public employer, Indiana University isn’t legally required to recognize the union under state law. Striking graduate workers could be fired with no repercussions or even fined by a court.
“It's illegal for you to go on strike," said Neil Gath, an Indianapolis-based labor lawyer. "The only right you possess would be a First Amendment right under the U.S. Constitution, to belong to a union. That doesn’t mean you get to bargain or file a grievance, but it's the right of association.”
Currently, Indiana University Bloomington voluntarily recognizes two unions – one for custodians and another for clerical staff. With roughly 2,500 student academic appointees on the campus, it could easily become the largest bargaining unit if recognized.
One group closely watching the strike? Graduate Rights and Our Well-Being, or GROW, at Purdue University. It's a labor organization for graduate students workers who have been lobbying for better wages on the public university campus.
GROW Vice President Lauren Murfree said the strike at Indiana University helps them by raising public awareness of issues affecting graduate student workers.
"They've gotten so much community support," Murfree said. "They're spreading that across Indiana, like that's wonderful. And here at Purdue, we'll be continuing to pressure admins to increase our wages to an actual living wage of $15 an hour."
The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition said they’ll strike for at least a week, but could extend it if a majority of the union vote in favor. Meanwhile, various student and faculty groups at IU, local political parties and unions across the state have voiced their support for the strike.