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IU graduate student workers strike through finals; all-faculty meeting scheduled

Many grad student workers are hoping that their absence from classrooms and grading doesn't go unnoticed.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind — Indiana University graduate students are entering their fourth week on strike amid an ongoing push for a union so they can better negotiate for higher pay and an elimination of mandatory fees from the university.

To make things trickier, it's finals week. Many grad student workers are hoping that their absence from classrooms and grading doesn't go unnoticed. But with the university so far unwilling to bargain or to consider a union, it's led to a bit of a stalemate on the Bloomington campus. 

"What do we want? A union! When do we want it? Now!" cried grad student workers picketing throughout the IU Bloomington campus. 

The voices of grad student workers on strike have been echoing around IU for weeks now. On Tuesday, more than 1,100 grad student workers voted to continue the strike another week, continuing the picket through finals.

Ph.D. student Cole Nelson said grad workers are instrumental at IU, especially during finals.

"Immensely, immensely vital. Graduate workers are grading a huge percentage of tests, exams, papers, we're assessing student performance in labs, in classroom experience, we’re taking attendance, leading discussions in classes. So we are deeply instrumental to the regular functioning of a university throughout the semester, but especially so through finals week,” Nelson said. “More often that not, the work that we do is kept separate, kept isolated, and other than being in the classroom, it’s work that is largely rendered invisible. So we want to as much as possible make sure that our work, our presence on campus is seen, is recognized and is known."

Nelson said many of them are starting to hear from the administration about potential penalties for the strike.

"The university has also on a number of counts threatened with potential firing of graduate workers, they consider this non-reappointment of graduate workers," Nelson said. 

RELATED: 'Ready to take that stand' | IU grad workers extend strike

IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said students won't be penalized just for striking.

But they're considering their options, including non-reappointment, for those that aren't fulfilling their duties.

“So that is always a possibility," Carney said. "We’re going to have to look at what has actually happened this semester as we’ve gone along. Again, it’s been a very few classes that’s been disrupted so we don’t think in the end, it will be a large number of people that would even be possible for non-reappointment or something like that.”

So far, finals week disruptions have been minimal. Carney said there are plans in place for faculty, even department chairs, to help with grading if needed.

RELATED: IU grad student workers vote to strike, calling for better pay

And while the school is meeting with graduate students and grad student workers in general, Carney said they aren't budging on the issue of bargaining. 

“They are all welcome and have come to these open meetings we’ve had with grad students and SAAs. So they can continue to come to those. We are not bargaining as we’ve said all along and that’s not something that’s going to change,” Carney said. 

Meanwhile, students tell 13News they're concerned that their attempts to unionize and negotiate with IU have so far been met with deaf ears.

"It's immensely frustrating, somewhat chilling as well," Nelson said. "But we really hope that through the pressure that we're applying, through the pressure that faculty, alumni, undergraduates, community members are applying on the administration, they will come to their senses."

Now, IU faculty are getting involved. 

An all-faculty meeting has been scheduled for Monday. It's the first time a meeting like this has been called since 2005, according to Benjamin Robinson, Germanic Studies Chair and Bloomington Chapter president of the American Association of University Professors.

“We’re trying to put the question of graduate unionization and the strike front and center among campus faculty. And the reason we’re doing that is obviously, a work stoppage is a very strong signal that there’s a desire for improving the conditions of graduate workers and there’s also a desire for recognition of their right to collectively bargain,” Robinson said. 

Robinson said he and many other faculty members are growing concerned that the university isn't taking steps to resolve the strike or address the issues in front of them.

"We've seen no invitation from the leadership for that, so we can only interpret it as intransigence bordering on incompetence. And under those circumstances, faculty who are really committed to the success of IU, we're here, this is our life career, we've dedicated ourselves to this, we're here for IU so we've taken the extraordinary step of reaching out to each other to try and convene faculty opinion to try and make clear to the leadership that they have to take steps right now," Robinson said. 

Last week, the Graduate Student and Professional Government at IU took a vote of "no confidence" against the provost.

Whether faculty follows suit is still up in the air. But Robinson said they hope IU can resolve the issue before it comes to that.

"People just have to decide that they have the room to listen and to act on what they hear. And if that space opened up, I think we could really quickly move toward a resolution," Robinson said. "So I think it's really surprising given how obvious the steps are: listening, looking at peer institutions where graduate students exist and are successful and saying, 'OK, this is something we can talk about.' Bargaining never means a take it or leave it attitude, bargaining means coming to the table with an eye toward resolving differences and it's the bargaining they're shutting out from the beginning."

When it comes to graduate worker pay, salaries vary pretty widely across the country.

A report from The Guardian shows Princeton raised wages to about $40,000 in January. Brown University also recently increased graduate worker pay to about $42,000. 

But a lot of colleges across the country pay a lot less, hovering around $20,000 a year. Also, pay can vary widely based on a graduate student's field of study.

Click here to see where universities rank in pay for graduate students.

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