IU graduate student instructors now on strike for union recognition, next vote on Tuesday

On Friday morning, at Sample Gates, on the east end of Kirkwood Avenue, around 100 Indiana University graduate student instructors set up a picket with printed signs that said, “ON STRIKE For Union Recognition.”

The action by the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition – United Electrical Workers (IGWC) is considered by the university’s administration to be just a “work stoppage” and not a “strike” by a union.

The university administration’s refusal to recognize the IGWC as a union is the central grievance of the graduate student instructors.

The strike, which started Wednesday, was authorized by a vote of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition – United Electrical Workers by a tally of 1,008 to 23 (97.8 in favor), according to union organizers.

The job title of graduate student instructors within the university’s employment system is student academic appointee (SAA). The IGWC wants the university’s administration to recognize the group as the union representing all SSAs as provided under Indiana Code.

The kind of issues the IGWC wants to be able to negotiate with the administration as a collective bargaining unit include: elimination of various fees; compensation; benefits; a formal grievance procedure; and equity for international students who are SAAs.

International graduate students pay an extra $357 fee just because they are international students, according to union organizers.  Some of the organizers interviewed by The B Square on Friday morning see equity for international graduate students as an important, but underreported, component of the grievances that need to be negotiated.

The administration’s refusal to recognize the IGWC as a union is based on the fact that SAAs are not “full-time employees whose sole or primary responsibility is instruction.”

The back-and-forth between IGWC and office of the university provost over the last year has meant that the would-be union has been talking to three different acting provosts: Lauren Robel, who stepped down from the post in June of 2021; John Appelgate, who served as interim provost;  and now Rahul Shrivastav, who has been serving in the role since mid-February.

In February 2021, Robel sent a 14-page response to the union organizers that declined to recognize the union, but did indicate a willingness to revisit stipend minimums.

More recently, at the beginning of February this year, Applegate rejected the request for recognition of union status in a two page letter.

In an email message to faculty sent on April 12, Shrivastav wrote, “Federal and Indiana law creates no obligation for Indiana University to recognize or bargain with a graduate student union.” Shrivastav’s message continues, “As I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that we need a union to improve graduate education and I will not re-visit this decision.”

An FAQ posted by the university about the situation states: “The policies that SAAs agreed to work under very explicitly state that failure to fulfill academic job responsibilities may result in suspension, termination, and prohibition on future appointment to SAA jobs. IU would pursue these courses of action in order to protect the academic progress of undergraduate students.”

Among the benefits that IGWC wants to negotiate are health benefits.

On Friday, in front of Sycamore Hall, which was one of about a dozen compus picket locations, a mathematics graduate student described his own experience trying to get health insurance for his wife and son.

Through a megaphone, he addressed the gathering: “As a graduate student I can sign them up for my health care. Do you know how much it is every month for one baby and one adult woman?? $1,400!”

He continued, “I’m a math PhD student. Let’s do the math! What’s $1,400 times 12 months? That’s $16,800. How much do I get paid every year? $16,000!” He summed up: “It costs more than my entire salary to give my wife and son health insurance!”

When he asked an administrator why it cost so much, the response he heard was: “Oh, grad students usually don’t have a family.” His rejoinder to that explanation: “I do!”

Responding to a B Square question, the mathematics graduate student said the lesson plan for 50 undergrads that he would have been teaching that day, instead of picketing, would have covered Markov chains.

The math department is one of 24 university departments that have expressed support for the union organizers.

Math department chair Kevin Pilgrim wrote in a message to the faculty and staff: “I write to inform you that our Mathematics Department leadership is aware that the majority of graduate workers at Indiana University are asking for union representation in an attempt to improve their pay and working conditions. We support these efforts.”

Pilgrim continued, “The department has no intention of retaliating against any graduate student for simply speaking out about their working conditions, or for simply participating in a collective action like a strike.”

The administration’s response to the strike action has been in part to focus on mitigating any harm to instruction of undergraduates. A message to undergrads from Rick Van Kooten, who is executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, included a link to a grievance form to lodge complaints about instruction.

On Friday, at least two undergrads turned up to support their graduate student instructors at the picket line. At Sample Gates, a sophomore said he’s taken a lot of classes that are taught by graduate student instructors. He was there to support them, he said.

At Sycamore Hall another sophomore said that it was her graduate student instructors who were the best, and most understanding teachers she had experienced at IU.

The current union organizing action has garnered support from the broader community outside IU,  including an endorsement from Bloomington Transit’s union. Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton appeared at Sample Gates on Thursday morning to offer his support of the organizing effort.

[Updated on at 11:39 a.m. April 16, 2022: Now added to the Bloomington city council’s Wednesday, April 20 agenda is a resolution in support of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition.]

The next vote, on whether to continue the strike, is supposed to take place next Tuesday.

Photos: Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition strike action (April 15, 2022)