The 45 graduate workers were excited as they marched into Franklin Hall on Dec. 10, 2021.
Pat Wall and Rachel Epplin, two IU graduate workers, stopped outside the door of room 200, Office of the Board of Trustees. They held a yellow envelope holding a letter to the trustees requesting a union election, and a flash drive with the electronic copy of 1,584 union cards, each signed by a graduate worker supporting the request.
Members of the Indiana Graduate Workers’ Coalition had been fighting for unionization the entire year. They organized a mandatory fee strike in the spring of that year, then ended it in May. They partnered with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of Americas to set unionization in motion and become the IGWC-UE. Then, they worked throughout the fall 2021 semester to collect union cards from more than 60% of all graduate workers at IU.
“We’re gonna do this,” Wall said to the fellow graduate workers in front of the office as they cheered them on.
They entered the room, told the receptionist their demands to the trustees, and handed over the envelope. She took it, walked inside and started making phone calls. “We’re just receptionists here, you know,” another receptionist walked out and said.
She sat down at the receptionist desk and started typing on the computer and then, silence. Pat and Rachel stood there for 10 minutes, waiting, under the bright yellow lights and the low ceiling of the Office of the Board of Trustees. A few couches sat to the left of them, but they did not sit down.
Wall would later think back on what he said were 10 anticlimactic minutes and feel guilty that the receptionists ended up being part of the spectacle, instead of IU Administration. He said he would have told the receptionists this wasn’t about them, and it was just where they had to be.
“If I could do it over again, I would have brought like, I don’t know, some chocolates or something,” Wall said.
That silence went on until 5:16 p.m. on Feb. 1, when former IU Interim Provost John S. Applegate sent a letter to the IGWC-UE, refusing to recognize it as a union or bargain with it.
Less than 45 minutes after he saw the letter, Wall walked from home to Switchyard Brewing Company. He and around 15 other organizers met to discuss next steps.
The group picked a picnic table outside. Some had to stand, some had to attend on Zoom. But upset and energized, they drafted letters to faculty, graduate students and union members, asking everyone to read the letter, to remember that the union had expected IU’s rejection and to not feel discouraged.
IU has no legal obligation under state and federal law to negotiate a labor contract with any union representing the university’s public employees, according to Applegate’s Feb. 1 letter.
For four years, IGWC-UE has fought for an end to mandatory fees, better pay and benefits and a formal grievance procedure with the university. An uphill fight lies ahead for its members to realize these demands in a labor contract with IU.
Are graduate workers employees or students?
Both Applegate and former Provost Lauren Robel have argued that IU’s graduate workers do not count as staff employees but rather primarily as students, and serve as academic appointees when they take up instructional work.
The argument obligates graduate workers to pay mandatory student fees just as undergraduates do, covering expenses including transportation, student activity, IU Health Center services and services for international students. Graduate students have testified how these fees make their already modest life a more difficult struggle.
More significantly, by designating graduate workers as non-staff, IU excludes them from a human resources policy that paves the way for staff unionization. This argument by Applegate came despite the IGWC-UE’s submission of union cards supporting a union election from more than 60% of IU’s graduate students in December 2021, well past the 30% threshold the IU policy requires for such an election.
If IU were a private university, the former provosts’ argument that graduate workers are not staff would not have stood under current U.S. regulations. In a case involving Columbia University’s graduate workers seeking to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that student assistants working at private universities count as employees and are hence entitled to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Under former President Donald J. Trump’s administration, the NLRB at one point proposed to revert the 2016 decision, but ultimately scrapped the proposal.
Nevertheless, as a public university, IU lies outside of the legislation’s reach, and its public sector employees are instead governed by state law. Joseph Varga, assistant professor of labor studies at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis, said under Indiana state law, public sector employers like IU can, but are under no obligation to, either recognize or bargain with unions representing their employees.
“Our state is, I'm going to say, not very friendly to public sector employees when it comes to collective bargaining rights,” he said.
Varga said the NLRB’s 2016 ruling involving Columbia University strengthens IU graduate workers’ moral and ethical argument for unionization, but on legal grounds, the university has an upper hand.
“Our graduate students here have a good moral and ethical argument to be recognized as workers – which they are; they produce for the university,” he said. “But the legal grounds are more difficult because they are public sector employees.”
“The right thing to do”
In the Office of the Board of Trustees, as he waited for the receptionist to inform her superiors that IGWC-UE had submitted a letter asking for a union election, Wall said he hoped the union would negotiate a labor contract with IU by the end of 2022.
With Applegate’s letter, that hope now seems slim. But IU Media School Ph. D. student and union member Sam Smucker said IGWC-UE is stronger than ever.
“People are outraged by what the university is saying,” Smucker said. “Saying that we're not workers is so absurd that it just drives people to be a part of the union and to want to get involved.”
As of Feb. 11, the union’s organizing fund has raised $8,000, more than 99% of which was raised following Applegate’s letter, according to its GoFundMe page.
Smucker said the fact that most graduate workers had signed union cards should be powerful enough to bring IU administrators to the bargaining table.
“The question is whether there's any respect at all for the work we do among this administration and at the Board of Trustees,” he said. “They're not obligated to do it. It's just — it's just the right thing to do.”
At a union town hall on Feb. 6, information and library science graduate student and union member Huixin Tian said Applegate’s letter shows IU administrators’ refusal to acknowledge graduate workers’ contribution to the basic function of the university’s academic research. She said IU essentially designs and applies its human resources policy to set roadblocks for graduate worker unionization.
“It’s just like in the game, IU is both the referee and the player,” Tian said. “So if they’re really wanting to include us, there won't be any problems with the policy. They can simply just change it, because they wrote it in the first place.”
Benjamin Robinson, chair of the Germanic studies department and president of the IU-Bloomington chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said IU’s denial of graduate workers’ call for unionization is shortsighted. He said unionizing would allow them to become better teachers and signal to future applicants that IU is a welcoming place.
Robinson said graduate workers’ economic security, a key item on IGWC-UE’s agenda, goes hand in hand with academic freedom.
“We research best, we think best, when we are free to explore without the pressures of either censorship, or of not having an adequate cost of living and having to listen to external authorities in order to be assured that we can have our next meal,” Robinson said.
Robinson said IU seems oblivious during a time of nationwide labor movement, including in corporations like Starbucks and schools like Columbia University.
“They seem very detached and almost pedantic in the way they made their decision,” he said.
Giorgio Losi, IU Ph. D. candidate in Italian studies, said almost all of their colleagues in the Department of French and Italian signed union cards last fall because they understood what it was like to live under the poverty line.
“I think most of our students can see how unfair it is to do all this work and to be paid that much,” they said. “Most people are frustrated and they really want to see the union come together, or they want to see the results that the union would bring with it.”
“Workers always have power”
IU’s latest refusal to recognize IGWC-UE as a union does not mean it is the end of the road for unionization, Varga said. Like workers across the U.S., IU’s graduate workers always have the right to collective action such as going on strike, he said.
“Workers in this case always have power,” Varga said. “They always have influence.”
But Varga said the graduate workers are also in a terrible position to go on strike because their academic career and livelihood depend on the same institution they would fight against.
In spring 2021, the IGWC rallied over 800 graduate workers to pledge to withhold paying their mandatory fees, according to its website. That February, then-IU Provost Lauren Robel wrote a letter to the coalition that February rejecting some of its key claims for starting the strike, arguing that doctoral student workers do earn a living wage and that since graduate workers are students, they should pay mandatory fees. In May, the coalition ended the strike.
“Our conclusion was that in order to ensure that graduate workers’ concerns are heard, we have to organize a union of graduate workers,” the IGWC website reads.
Cole Nelson, IGWC-UE organizer and spokesperson, said the union will continue to pressure IU to negotiate, and graduate workers may go on strike again by refusing to perform their instructional duties.
Near the end of the Feb. 6 union town hall, Valentina Luketa, president of the IU Graduate and Professional Student Government and a founding member of the IGWC, recalls the day when 20 graduate students met in a classroom at Ballantine Hall with a desire to form a graduate student union. No is not an acceptable answer for the unionization effort, Luketa said as many participants in the Zoom room raised their hands and some their fists.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody — not the Indiana state law, not even the federal government, most definitely not the IU administration — gets to tell us whether or not we deserve a union,” she said.