OPINION: The conservative case for Indianapolis students to unionize

Faculty at Indiana University are set to hold a meeting to consider a no-confidence vote for President Pamela Whitten and other administrators on April 16. One of the many reasons stated is the Whitten Administration’s disregard of the 2022 faculty vote in support of graduate student workers, who have been pushing for union recognition of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition since that year. The union has successfully convinced the administration to raise wages, eliminate international student fees, and more, but ultimately their leverage over the university is limited until they are officially recognized. If IUPUI (soon to be IU Indianapolis and Purdue in Indianapolis) students unionized, they could help that process, and conservative and progressive students alike would be wise to consider doing so.

Advantages

First of all, the size of the graduate student union, and thus the danger that comes with a potential strike would likely double if IUPUI unionized. There are more than 8,400 graduate and professional students at IUPUI, compared to 10,600 at IU Bloomington. 

A distinct campus environment and composition

There are more professional students at IUPUI, including dentistry students and medical residents. This group will likely continue to grow faster than the undergraduate student population. 

Courtesy of the UAW

The vast majority of the 1442 medical residents at the IU School of Medicine likely reside in Indianapolis. If they joined a union, they would have an immense amount of leverage over both IU Health and Indiana University because of both organizations’ dependence on them. 

Not to mention, the proportion of graduate students involved in research and who would then put the school’s research grant funding at risk by going on strike will likely increase as IU Indianapolis builds two new planned research facilities. This will give graduate workers more leverage as they negotiate better wages.

As IU Indianapolis and Purdue in Indianapolis grow further in the city, a union could play a formative role in their development, and the media market downtown could also help bring more public attention to that process.

Better strategy

Targeted strikes, like those employed by the UAW during their negotiations with the “Big Three” auto manufacturers, would also become more feasible if IU Indianapolis and Purdue unionized. 

Workers at multiple campuses could be leveraged to go on strike, and others, even going department-by-department, could be put on call to join a strike at a moment’s notice. Utilizing this strategy would make it significantly more difficult for the university to allocate resources where they are needed, and it would give workers an advantage at the negotiating table through unpredictability. Not to mention, it would allow the union to preserve resources when possible.

Goals

Immediately, the goal of a union would be a living wage for school employees. Conservatives might worry and look to the several other progressive policy goals often pushed for by student unions; however, this is all the more reason to make sure the union represents them by taking part in it and pushing for more concrete goals. 

Supporting the family

Students older than 22 make up a larger share of IUPUI’s student body when compared to IU Bloomington, while both enroll more than 14,000 students in that age group. IU-Indianapolis Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dr. Eric Weldy has emphasized that student demographics will likely continue to shift in that direction. 

With adult learners come families. In fact, at least 5.7 percent of the IUPUI student body are also parents. If these adult learners become employed by the university, they will need to be able to take care of their families, which would require the school to pay them a living wage, and ideally to make sure childcare is accessible to them. This is where unions can come in as part of a holistic, pro-family policy.

Unionization has become a dirty word among conservatives, but it never had to be that way. In fact, in the 1950s, an era looked upon fondly by many conservatives for its perceived emphasis on family values, unions had significantly greater strength, and workers kept a significantly greater share of the benefits of their toil. 

Since then, productivity has risen exponentially, even when wages stagnated. Working parents also increasingly struggle with work-life balance and feel like they have less and less time to spend with their children. Conservatives and progressives should both agree that this is a problem.

Making student labor a free and fair market

Indiana University Bloomington students sign union cards for the IGWC

Not to mention, unions are necessary for capitalism, a favorite of conservatives, to function well. That is because labor in the education system hardly involves a free market. Information is limited, and it is not practical simply to leave a graduate program because another offers a better salary. It is not even always possible for every student to obtain a job with good hours on campus. 

The lack of options is even more evident for students with an F-1 visa, who are legally unable to work outside campus unless they have extreme financial need. 

“Initially, it was difficult for me to find on campus employment as there was a lot of competition, I was struggling to pay off my bills as I was only working 10 hours a week and that was not enough,” said one international student employee I spoke with. “Because of the restriction, I was not able to work off campus, so initially, it was difficult for me, but once I got 20 hours per week on my campus job, I was able to pay off my expenses and also save.”

Full-time, benefits-eligible staff have a minimum wage of $15/hour on the IUPUI campus, which is about how much you can make at McDonald’s, but part-time staff only have a minimum wage of $10.15/hour. 

Of course, graduate student stipends are another matter altogether, but the problem is similar. International students make up the second largest demographic of doctoral students at IU-Indianapolis, and a union would also be able to provide them leverage against the university. This pressure can fill the gap left by a lack of competition and help to encourage innovation. 

Restoring academic freedom and fixing structural issues

Not only that, but the union could be a voice for long-term structural reform amenable to conservatives as well as progressives, such as preserving academic freedom, pushing for the university to be more responsive to the needs of the community it directly serves and integrating where possible with the demands of the local workforce. 

The university has appeared to silence supporters of both Palestine and Israel on campus (not to mention they blacklisted this publication). Conservative students have feared speaking up for years. The common denominator between them and progressives is that almost everyone is unhappy and feels constrained and limited by the university in some way.  

The external conflict points to deeper issues within the structure of higher education. It relies on obsolete educational models built to serve professors and administrators more than students, establish arbitrary standards to limit the employment opportunities of certain groups of people, and to create bureaucrats.  

At one point in our history, universities claimed their goal was to instill civic virtue, responsibility, and morality into the student body. At least today they are more honest.   

The broken, bloated system we inherited is dependent on unsustainable wages to persist. If a strong union exposed the university to the powers of the market, then it would become imperative to reform old ways of thinking. Perhaps that would involve using endowments more equitably, and prioritizing the educational activities that matter most. Regardless, administrators can certainly figure out something that works better for all Hoosier students.

Jacob Stewart is editor emeritus of The Collegiate Commons. He would love to hear your thoughts on union organization. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or email him at stewartja.2025@gmail.com. His opinions are his own and represent no one but himself (and hopefully you now that you’ve read his article).

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