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Labor professor on grad students trying to form union: They’re workers

graduate workers at a work-in in Franklin Hall

Graduate student workers staged a "work-in" at Franklin Hall Tuesday. (Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU)

Indiana graduate student workers are continuing efforts to unionize after university administrators rejected a request from about 1,600 such workers to hold a formal election.

Joseph Varga, associate professor of labor studies at IUPUI, said efforts by IU graduate student workers are happening at the right time.

“I think that the graduate workers are doing this at a time when there is a kind of heightened sense of workers and their rights within the workplace,” Varga said Wednesday.

IU policy recognizes some staff unions but says graduate workers are primarily students and get benefits beyond stipends such as healthcare, tuition remission, and grants.

Varga disagrees with that policy. 

“I don't know what any other definition of a worker could be,” Varga said. “When you produce for another entity or institution, they reward you with remuneration. You're a worker.”

Graduate workers have unionized in other states including California, New York, Washington and Oregon. But because of state laws, Indiana differs.

While staff and faculty can form a union, Varga says IU has no legal obligation to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement.

“In states like Indiana with the type of public sector laws that we have, the institution is under no obligation to recognize the workers as a collective bargaining unit to negotiate all of the terms and conditions of their employment,” Varga said.

There are unions on IU’s campus, including the AFSCME Local, representing custodians and maintenance workers and the CWA Local, which primarily represents clerical staff. Although these unions may negotiate in some cases, Varga says these unions mainly represent workers facing disciplinary action. 

Additionally, because of right-to-work statutes in Indiana, members of unions aren’t required to pay dues, which can leave them with limited resources and constrain what they can do.

On Tuesday, graduate workers staged a “work-in” at Franklin Hall.

Cole Nelson, a graduate worker at IU’s media school, said the demonstration was meant to show the types of work that graduate workers do.

“We’re highlighting just the very fact that graduate workers work, they perform labor for the university, and that is one of their primary statuses here at IU,” Nelson said.

Varga said if the IU graduate workers were recognized as a union, it would be a first within a public institution of higher education in the state of Indiana.

“That could have ramifications for Purdue University, for Ivy Tech, for the workers at those institutions.” Varga said. “It'll be interesting to see what happens.”

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