Grad workers need a union for our students
Graduate workers at IU want to be the best instructors possible. We want to have time and resources necessary to dedicate ourselves to our students' personal and intellectual growth in our classrooms. However, as any graduate worker will tell you, the financial reality of our low wages and mandatory fees prevents that hope from becoming a reality.
In my case, that has meant not being able to afford things like snow tires or a more reliable car to ensure that I can travel to campus during winter weather. For others, it has meant having to work a second job to make ends meet. A recent Media School survey revealed that about 25% of Media graduate workers take on second jobs. That means a large number of instructors are unable to dedicate extra time to course preparation, grading or meeting with undergraduates.
Graduate workers have told me about going to the classes they teach dazed from 18-hour work days, while still others — some of the best teachers at the university — have had to leave their programs because they can no longer afford to work 70 hours a week for so little pay. Although undergraduates pay more than $1,000 per credit hour, little of that money goes to instructors. Most instructors have a take home pay of under $400 per week. For all of us, it means sacrificing the quality of our students’ education, so that we can make ends meet. It means worrying about how we will pay our bills instead of how we will be better educators.
When you hear of the efforts toward unionization by graduate instructors, you may be confused about what we are asking for and what impact that might have. Unionization would mean more time to lesson plan, to meet with students, and to support your emotional and intellectual needs. It would give us more energy, more stability, and more security to continue making our classrooms the environments of growth and purpose we want them to be. The opportunity to speak for ourselves, to ask for reasonable compensation for our labor, would increase the quality of our teaching, increase the competitiveness of our graduate programs, and thus increase the value of all of our degrees.
I want a union not just for my colleagues and myself, but also for our undergraduate students.
- Josh Rawleigh, associate instructor and Ph.D, Student at Indiana University Bloomington
Recognize the importance of grad workers
As a former IU undergraduate student, I seldom took the time to recognize the importance and necessity of graduate student workers. Nor did I reflect on how much work they put into my education and how little they were paid to do it. The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition-United Electrical Workers' recent decision to strike was much needed and reflects the recent trend of stagnant stipends coupled with ever-increasing tuition.
The economic power that the grad students hold and the institutional gap that they fill on IU’s campus should not be understated. This, in combination with IU faculty members’ recent support, shows a growing divide between the administration and the employees that interact with the paying students at the school. It is hard to imagine a scenario where classes continue to run with regularity if the administration does not meet with union leaders.
The true strength of the students' position, however, is not their ability and willingness to strike, but in the public perception of the strike. When Eliza Pavalko, a vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, is making more than $240,000, addressed the importance of graduate workers who are severely underpaid, it seemed somewhat tone deaf. The crux of the strike is for the wages paid to graduate workers to match the importance attributed to them by the administration. The administration’s decision on whether to recognize union leadership will have a long-term impact on the legacy of the university. As an alumnus, I hope that IU recognizes the power of collective action, and the impact that it can have on the opinion of the public, other IU students and alumni who donate to the school.
- Javon Coatie, IU alum
Profit over people
I am writing today regarding the graduate students’ effort at IU to unionize and perhaps more importantly, the university’s response to these efforts.
The real concern, in my opinion, is the stance that IU has taken in response to these efforts. With a poker face, the university says that this group of student-workers are furthering their education in such a beneficial way that a union is not proper for these “students.” The university is not mentioning that they are benefiting from this relationship far more.
James Wimbush of The Herald-Times reported that the university “invests” an average of $51,000 per student via stipends and fee waivers. The verbiage used here is perfect. The university “invests” the same way everyone does — with the expectation of profit! That is what investing is right? But what profit?
Well, although we could, it is not necessary to look much further than the facts we already have. These workers are paid $51,000 per part-time student, who very well could still be paying the university for tuition or other fees. Do you think the university is profiting from this arrangement rather than hiring full-time professors and assistants to do the same work? Yes, absolutely.
- Cody Vibbert, J.D. candidate at IU Maurer School of Law
Debt and uncertainty for graduate workers
On the eve of the IGWC-UE strike, the IU administration has dug in its heels and refused to recognize the strong majority of graduate student employees who wish to form a union. A strike is regrettable for all parties, but it’s important to understand how we’ve come to this, and to offset the anti-union rhetoric with some crucial perspective.
Our top administrators largely dismiss students’ claims to fair labor rights when they make high-minded references to the rewards of belonging to our “academic community.” In recent statements and actions, they are using a full-court press to cajole or intimidate lower-level administrators, and faculty, into breaking the strike. Many of my faculty colleagues are prone to agree with them. But why?
Until recently I, too, thought that graduate students would need to learn to sacrifice. After all, when I was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina from 1986 to 1993, I often had to supplement my stipend by waiting tables.
The academic job market was much more promising back then. I knew that I had realistic prospects for well remunerated, full-time employment.
At IU today, many of our most accomplished graduate students are well into their 30s and 40s when they arrive on campus. They may have spouses, kids or other family responsibilities.
Because there is little centralized oversight, IU’s academic departments often require far more than the posted suggestion of 15-20 hours of work. It is often work of the hardest, most urgent kind — composition, language, math. Graduate students may have to balance sudden surges of teaching work with their own graduate course requirements.
Finally, job prospects for many Ph.D. students have become even more precarious in recent years. They live today with rampant inflation, and they are being asked to go into debt for a future rife with uncertainty.
Under such conditions, is it any wonder that our graduate students are asking for more?
- Bradley A. Levinson, professor of Education Policy Studies and adjunct professor of Anthropology, Latino Studies, Latin American Studies at Indiana University
Treat graduate students as employees
On April 8, 2022, The Herald-Times published a guest column written by vice president for diversity, equity, and multicultural affairs James C. Wimbush, who argued against IU graduate students’ unionization efforts. The vice president’s 460 words can be summarized as ‘the graduate student employees are students, not employees.’
Vice President Wimbush, if someone is a full-time student at IU, but also has a part-time job off campus, are they a student or an employee? It is possible for an individual to be both a student and an employee. Working for IU should not make a difference.
IU and Vice President Wimbush should acknowledge that other public universities have recognized and bargained with graduate student unions, and those universities did not crumble as a result.
For example, the Graduate Employees’ Organization has been representing graduate student workers at the University of Michigan since 1970. Bloomberg Law points out that 12 states allow student workers to unionize, and “(m)ore than two dozen public colleges currently have student assistant unions.” The same article points out that student unions strengthened relationships between faculty and student workers, and “boosted the quality of professional development.”
IU needs to recognize the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition - United Electrical Workers. Their goals are reasonable: “graduate workers on the IU-B campus to have good working conditions, including adequate pay, benefits and freedom from discrimination.” All students, faculty and citizens should support this group of unified individuals and their requests for basic necessities.
- Bill Sanchez, J.D. candidate at IU Maurer School of Law