opinion

OPINION: IU’s graduate workers are treated abysmally. It’s time to pay them a living wage.



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Nathan Schmidt, a graduate student in the English department, raises his fist as protesters chant Aug. 24 in Dunn Meadow. Tristan Jackson

Graduate students are the critical components of a well-functioning university. Not only do they pursue challenging degrees, but they teach undergraduates, grade papers and conduct vital research. Despite this laboring work, graduate workers are paid abysmal wages. In our bicentennial year, we should honor IU’s dedication to academia by paying graduate workers a living wage.

Across the country, graduate students are repeating the important mantra, “Our university works because we do.” This couldn’t be closer to the truth. In many ways, graduate students are academia’s foot soldiers, braving the hardest work for the lowest recognition. 

“We seek to make permanent changes to the ways graduate workers are treated at IU,” said Pallavi Rao, a member of the Graduate Workers Coalition.

Fortunately, the Graduate Workers Coalition is fighting to change that. Nearly one year after their first demonstrations in 2019, the coalition released their fall 2020 demands, marking a commendable shift toward a holistic improvement of the IU graduate student experience.

A look at the coalition’s website reveals the demands are meticulously well-researched and grounded in the experiences of graduate students at IU. Most of all, the demands are common-sense policies that should have been implemented decades ago. They include a living wage of $21,722 per academic year, 2% annual inflation raises and abolishing mandatory fees. Today, they also call for the university enforcing a COVID-19 safe workspace.

To compare, graduate workers are currently given annual stipends of around $15,750 to teach, research and learn. This stipend is only 23.4% above the federal poverty line, which is $12,760 for a single person, and far below Bloomington’s estimated $20,000 cost of living. On top of that, graduate students must pay around $1,000 of their stipend back to the university through mandatory fees.

“I had to lose a tooth because I had to choose between paying the student fees or paying for dental care last year,” one graduate worker said in a testimony.

Seeing that the mandatory graduate student fees are less than 0.5% of IU’s operating budget, ending the fees would have been an easy and highly beneficial method to improve the conditions of our graduate workers.

Nevertheless, early requests to repeal these fees went unnoticed by the IU administration. Notwithstanding some individual schools, the graduate workers’ requests to preserve their income by ending mandatory fees were largely ignored, resulting in protests that faced a similar outcome.

To make matters worse, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the financial precariousness of an already tenuous graduate student population.

“As it is, our paychecks are a formal invitation by the university into the ranks of poverty,” coalition member Mallika Khanna said.

In mid-August, dozens of graduate workers protested the re-opening of IU’s campuses, announcing their fall 2020 demands. Moving beyond mandatory fee concerns, the coalition refocused their priorities toward better treatment for all graduate workers, marking an important shift in the group's agenda. 

One of their flagship demands — the implementation of a living wage for all graduate workers — is far from radical. In fact, it’s common sense. The coalition is not asking IU to pay graduate students exorbitant salaries. They’re merely asking IU to afford graduate workers the most basic dignity and security that an employee should receive.

“We are expected to survive off of wages that are thousands of dollars below the Bloomington living standard projected by IU itself,” coalition member Chelsey Belt said.

The financial precarity of graduate workers is especially egregious when you consider the integral role of graduate students at our school. Graduate students teach 31% of undergraduate courses at IU, which doesn’t even include those who work part time in libraries, as teaching assistants or in research positions.

Given the importance of graduate student workers, a transition from poverty wages to wages slightly above Bloomington's cost of living would not be a monumental feat. Graduate students have spoken. It’s time for the Board of Trustees, President Michael McRobbie and the Bloomington Faculty Council to listen.

Brian Hancock (he/him) is a senior studying law and public policy and international political economy. He is the President of the Moot Court Club.

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