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

Grad student workers are asking for increases to pay and the elimination of mandatory fees that make it hard for many students to make ends meet.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind — NOTE: This story has been adjusted after Quan Le Thien told 13News he is actually a research assistant and not an associate instructor. He also corrected his claim that he is on food stamps, and instead said he looks for discounts when shopping for groceries.

Sunday night into Monday afternoon, hundreds of graduate students who work at Indiana University Bloomington voted in favor of a strike on campus. 

The grad students there are working to form a union so they can better negotiate with the university, stressing their wages have been too low for too long. Now, they're taking action in hopes of seeing changes made on campus to give grad students a seat at the table. 

Grad student workers are asking for increases to pay and the elimination of mandatory fees that make it hard for many students, especially international students, to make ends meet.

According to organizers, grad students overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. More than 1,000 students voted to strike, while 23 voted no. The strike will begin on campus Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Quan Le Thien is in his second year of his PhD in physics at IU. He takes classes and teaches around 20 hours a week. In one month, Le Thien said he makes about $1,400, but $200-$250 of that goes right back to the university in fees. 

"It's pretty hard," Le Thien said.

"This institution runs because we do," said Valentina Luketa, a grad student worker. Grad students teach classes and run studios, but Luketa said they feel underpaid and undervalued.

"We all teach because we're passionate about passing that knowledge along to others," Luketa said. "We just want to make sure that we do that from the position where we have all the resources we need to fulfill our potential, so that we're not worrying about bills, we're not choosing between getting necessary medical attention or paying our rent that month, so that we're not scrapping for pennies at the end of the month to buy food."

Credit: WTHR/Rachael Krause

According to Le Thien, hundreds of grad students have signed pledges to strike and are ready to act. They're hoping to see their actions over the next few days lead the administration to recognize them as a union and take action on demands for a living wage.

"We want to eliminate the fees right now because we feel that would give effective 15% raises to everyone's pockets right now, which is really necessary because of the whole inflation is crazy right now," Le Thien said. 

Grad workers had until Monday afternoon to vote. Since they confirmed a strike, come Wednesday morning many grad workers won't be teaching classes — they'll be out on the picket line.

Katie Shy, a PhD student in the English department, teaches two courses at IU in addition to her own studies. She said their demands to the administration are straightforward. 

“We would like to end the fees, we want fairness for international students, increased benefits, an effective grievance procedure and a living wage. And in order to accomplish those aims, we’re asking to open the process of union recognition,” Shy said.

And Shy said they're expecting to see some faculty members and undergrads joining in the picket line.

"We've been humbled by how generous our faculty have been in reaching out to us, letting us know they support us. They recognize that this is what we have to do and our students, too," Shy said. "It was such a hard conversation with my students and to hear them say, 'Good luck, I had no idea this was your situation' was amazing."

Now, with a verbal vote in favor of a strike and electronic votes cast, many of these grad students are ready for this push for change to begin.

The university sent 13News the following statement on the proposal from students to strike:

"IU’s new provost spent his first several weeks on the job meeting and listening to the concerns of graduate students in every school. As a result, the university provided individual schools support to increase their stipend pay; instituted a new minimum stipend level; and added new flexibility to their tuition waivers. This progress was made because most of these students were willing to work with their schools and the new administration to improve their academic experience and well-being, and we’re committed to continuing that dialogue. It’s therefore disappointing that a minority of graduate students are now threatening to strike in a manner that specifically targets undergraduate instruction. All our schools continue to develop contingency plans to ensure that, should a strike occur, academic and instructional activities can still occur. IU is committed to making sure our undergraduate students’ academic progress continues as expected and is not hindered by this potential disruption to their education, even if this group of students ultimately refuses to fulfill their own responsibilities."

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