Indiana University at Bloomington’s Faculty Council held a rare emergency meeting Monday evening to discuss the fallout from the ongoing graduate assistant strike for union recognition and the administration’s response to it.
Attendance at the in-person-only meeting was about 730—many more than the 200 professors needed for a quorum but fewer than the 800 needed to vote on resolutions without sending them out to the faculty as a whole for ratification.
Still, turnout at the dinnertime meeting, on the eve of the first day of summer classes, signaled how high the monthlong strike’s stakes have become, for faculty members and everyone else involved.
“The strike has gone on for longer than people initially expected,” said Benjamin Robinson, chair of Germanic studies and president of the campus advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “And [university] leadership escalated the crisis. Leadership provided no movement or resolution of the crisis.”
Prior to the meeting Monday, multiple faculty members said that graduate instructor appointments for the summer and fall terms are being held up by the Office of the Provost, even for classes for which graduate assistants are the instructors of the record. That’s unless the relevant department verifies that the given appointee has been working during the strike.
Professors also said that the administration has repeatedly called on the faculty to intervene in the strike in ways that felt unethical or legally unsound, such as by reporting which courses had been affected—effectively outing the strikers—and having one-on-one meetings with graduate assistants to obtain spring undergraduate grades.
The most recent guidance regarding undergraduate grades, from the dean of arts and sciences, would allow students in affected courses to complete work by early June in some cases, with the expectation that faculty members will work off-contract to review it.
Asserting the Faculty Right to Appoint Graduate Assistants
One resolution (still subject to ratification) approved Monday, 683 to 39, with two abstentions, asserts that departmental and school policies—not the provost’s office—govern the appointment of graduate assistants. The same resolution calls on the provost’s office to immediately release summer graduate assistant appointments, as classes begin today. It also says that no student will lose reappointment come fall for participating in the strike, even if they turn in undergraduate spring grades late.
Monday’s meeting was adjourned before votes on two other proposals were tallied. But some faculty members present said that the sentiment in the room was overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution calling on the campus administration to engage in dialogue with the graduate assistants seeking union recognition while the university’s Board of Trustees works on a permanent resolution to the labor dispute , namely a free and fair union election.
The room was generally against another resolution calling for increased cooperation among all parties in the dispute and reminding all involved of their responsibilities to submit grades and participate in shared governance, according to accounts from those present. (The union had asked faculty members to reject this measure.)
Monday’s meeting was called following a recent faculty town hall at which professors endorsed the idea of discussing a possible vote of no confidence in Provost Rahul Shrivastav, who has repeatedly said that IU will not recognize the graduate assistants’ union. The Faculty Council’s Executive Committee didn’t allow a no-confidence-related resolution on Monday’s agenda, or even a watered-down version of it threatening the future “condemnation” of the administration.
Beyond specific resolutions, multiple faculty members said that Monday’s meeting was about sending a message to Shrivastav and other administrators.
William Winecoff, an associate professor of political science, described that message like this: “You have to engage constructively with this constituency. Whether the union is formally recognized by the university or not, in a legal sense, you just can’t ignore them. It’s not the way the university can be run.”
Winecoff continued, “There’s no significant downside [to recognition] to the university. We’re not Amazon, right? We don’t have shareholders that we need to maximize the value of the corporation to satisfy. Many of the top-ranked universities in the US, including in the Big Ten conference—so our sort of aspirational peers—many of them already have graduate student unions, and have for a long time, and they continue to thrive.”
The graduate assistant strike is now going into its fifth week, and the university continues to refuse to engage graduate assistants who are seeking union recognition and collective bargaining powers. The graduate assistants, who are affiliated with the United Electrical Workers union, share a series of concerns about their working conditions but are primarily interested in increasing their pay. The university this year instituted a campuswide stipend floor of $18,000, but this is still far below living wage estimates of around $33,000, pretax, for a single person with no dependents in Bloomington.
Indiana law isn’t friendly to public-sector unions. Accordingly, the university doesn’t have to recognize the union, but it could do so voluntarily, and it does already recognize staff and police unions on campus. (The university says it doesn’t collectively bargain with these unions, but it maintains memorandums of understanding, also called “discussion summaries,” with them.)
IU declined immediate comment on Monday’s meeting. The president of the Faculty Council’s Executive Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Samuel Smucker, a Ph.D. Candidate in media studies who supports unionization, said that the strike has thus far “challenged the administration to live up to the most basic standards of academic culture, and that is open and transparent dialogue with the different parts of the academic community here.”
He added, “That’s what the faculty are reacting against. That instead of offering a pathway for discussion and dialogue about union recognition, about graduate employee concerns, the response has been threats, attempts to intimidate and attempts to punish graduate employees by denying them their rights to teach. This is at the base of what has generated such huge support among the faculty.”