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

"We have to do something, we have to fight back," said a grad student who's among over 1,000 others that voted in favor of a strike calling for better pay.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind — On Tuesday, Indiana University grad workers voted to extend their nearly week-long strike, seeking fee changes, improved stipends and union recognition.

“Our primary demand right now is to sit down and bargain," said Sam Smucker, an IU grad student worker. "They do not respond in any way, we contact them constantly, they do not respond to us,”

Chuck Carney, an IU spokesperson, said the administration is trying to address the issues the graduate students are bringing up.

"And that will provide a report to the provost, a full report next year, but in the meantime, we’ll even be taking interim measures that could be put in place by the fall. And that would be on top of the things that we recently announced, which includes a minimum stipend of $18,000, a five percent raise across the board for all SAAs as well as some tuition waiver flexibility,” Carney said.

Early last Thursday morning, many of IU Bloomington's graduate student workers were out of the classroom and out on campus. 

After more than 1,000 of the grad workers voted to approve a strike earlier this week, hundreds took to the picket lines on campus as they call on IU's administration to officially recognize them as a union.

"Our big demands are the end of the fees. I pay about $1,500 in fees. International students pay about $1,500 a semester in fees. We also want a living wage for everybody," said Pat Wall, a grad student worker at IU. 

On Thursday, April 21, the Bloomington City Council passed a resolution in support of the workers and the strike. 

“Indiana University graduate student workers are essential members of the Bloomington community ... and equitable grad worker pay is in the best interests of the city’s economic and social well-being," the resolution read, in part. 

RELATED: Read the full Bloomington City Council resolution

Wall said in ecology, he makes about $25,000 but stressed he's on the high end.

In the media school, Xan Smith said they make about $17,000. It can be tough to make ends meet and Smith said they feel frustrated. 

"It makes me want to quit all the time," Smith said. "We've had a lot of grad students, prospective grad students and we're like go find a place that respects you, our administration doesn't respect us."

Joining the grad student workers on the front lines are faculty members like Ben Robinson. Robinson said he sees these students trying to make IU a better place and he wanted to be out here to support that.

“Because I’m on the front lines as a faculty member and a chair, I know this hard work and I understand that in order to attract the best and the brightest to IU that we really have to have a living wage, we have them be able to work and teach our undergrads with dignity,” said Ben Robinson, Chair of the Germanic Studies Department and President of the American Association of University Professors at IU Bloomington. 

Strikers filled multiple spots of campus throughout the day, hoping to get the administration's attention.

Carney said students have a right to speak out on campus. So far, Carney said the strike has caused minimal disruptions on campus with few class cancellations.  And the administration, Carney said, will continue to listen to grad student worker concerns they're raising. 

"We're working on the issues they have raised concerns about. We have raised the minimum stipend for one, giving a five percent raise in stipends across the board for our student academic appointees. So we're working on these issues," said Carney. 

Carney says grad student workers won't be punished for voicing their concerns.

"But we'd just note that there are policies on the books that the faculty drew up regarding the requirement to fulfill the duties under the contract they have signed to be a student academic appointee. But we are just monitoring that right now," Carney said. 

As for the question of a union, Carney said it's already been considered. 

“We have had two provosts who have examined this issue and we aren’t reexamining the union issue. We believe we can address these issues that they say are important by having these ongoing discussions that we’ve been having for months. We’ve already addressed some of them but we’re going to continue to do more,” Carney said. 

While grad student workers skip teaching classes to strike, Smith said it's important to be out here pushing for change. Still, it's a tough choice to make.

"I really miss my students," Smith said. "I'm going to be missing, if this continues, I'll miss their last class. And I'm just thinking about standing outside with a sign, saying hi. They're really great."

"Grad workers' voices need to be heard," said Sam Smucker, a PhD student at IU and member of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition. "I knew that people were angry and I knew that people were ready to strike, but I didn't know how big it was, how deep it would go."

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

Smucker said it's hard to make ends meet on the pay he and other grad workers receive and that paycheck is cut down further by mandatory fees going back to IU.

“I’ve seen lots of my colleagues have to take second jobs... they sell their plasma and they can’t then dedicate themselves to teaching in the way they’d like to, they can’t dedicate themselves to their research the way they’d like to and this affects all of us,” Smucker said. "What's happening here is really a disaster. People are not getting their value out of coming to Indiana right now and we need to change that and the grad employees are ready to do that, we're ready to take that stand." 

A spokesperson for IU sent 13News a statement about the strike that said: 

"We are deeply disappointed that a minority of our more than 10,000 graduate students, and 2,500 student academic appointees, have decided to engage in a strike which specifically targets undergraduate instruction. This is especially troubling after our new provost and other academic leaders from each of our schools engaged with many graduate students at numerous listening sessions over the past month and a half to learn about their issues. As a result, a new minimum stipend was implemented, and all student academic appointees were given 5% raises. We are still committed to further dialogue directly with our graduate students.

Nonetheless, all our schools have been working on contingency plans to ensure academic and instructional activities will still occur. We also understand that many graduate students are uncomfortable putting the academic progress of undergraduates at risk and will not be participating in this strike. IU is committed to making sure our undergraduate students face minimal disruption to their education, and will still fulfill our own responsibilities to them so that their education is not hindered."

Grad students say the administration is not and has not been listening, but they hope to see that change.

"We're just going to make sure our voices are heard," Smucker said. 

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