Hi, John

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I wrote this a little while ago, in response to Acting Provost John Applegate’s letter to graduate workers. After he stepped down, I thought it seemed a bit pointless to try and publish it. But, the current Provost Shrivastav specifically referenced Applegate’s letter as rationale for his own inartful union-busting, so perhaps it is relevant to post now.

Hi John,

I read your letter to the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition, but then got confused because I thought I was accidentally reading former Provost Lauren Robel’s letter again. When I got to the end, I saw it was signed by you so I figured it out. There are some things you said that I want to reply to. I pulled some quotes and put them in bold, then responded to them.

“The relationship between graduate students and their instructors and their advisors should remain flexible and individualized.”

John, when faculty abuse their positions of power, I am powerless to push back. For example, a faculty member unilaterally moved the goalposts on my independent study no fewer than three times. I went to seek an advocate for this inappropriate behavior. My “advocate” was a member of the faculty, whose allegiance must be first to IU and not the graduate worker. They are subjected to the pressures of the system they are embedded in. Graduate workers come and go, but tenured coworkers are forever. With a union, I would have genuine advocates to work on my behalf, and a formal process to support me when people in power are abusing that power. (Speaking of flexible and individualized relationships: are you ever going to make it against the rules for professors to fuck their students? It’s not a rule that most need but, yeah…)

“[A union] would limit the ability to address and accommodate differences in student needs.”

John, I’m disabled and when a professor demanded I go to the Health Center to get a doctor’s note for missing one class due to my disability, I had no advocate. Instead, I had to go to the Health Center, waste an afternoon, pay the copay, only to have the professional attending to me ask “why are you here?” It was a great question, John. Why was I there? It wasn’t because I enjoyed the benefits of individualized accommodations. When I went through the expensive and invasive processes at Disabled Student Services, how was I benefitting then?

“The average actual value of graduate student support (stipend, grants and fellowships, tuition remission, and health/dental benefits) is in fact over $50,000.”

John, you do rigorous statistical analyses in your work as an environmental law researcher. Surely you know the most basic premises of statistics. Averages are typically not a major component of a statistical analysis because averages are incredibly susceptible to unevenly distributed data. It’s often the most basic way people misrepresent data sets. Wages are almost universally reported with medians, because that is far more resistant to distortions.

Here’s what I mean: the average of our two wages (~$16,000 and ~$600,000 produce a mean of about $308,000) doesn’t really tell us anything helpful because I experience no benefit of your generous compensation, and you didn’t lose half of your income. Though, it does make me wonder what it’s like to do 37 times the amount of work a graduate worker does. You must be a busy guy! Anyway, the departments that pay their graduate workers better obfuscates those that are paid worse. They’re called outliers, John. I’m sure you’ve heard of them.

This $50,000 figure is nonsense regardless of the childish statistical analyses. The biggest flaw is that Kroger doesn’t take “tuition remission” as payment. Benefits do carry value, but when the problem is a lack of money to buy food or pay rent, the only solution is to have more money. Also, grants and fellowships are not evenly available, and they are also a major source of distorting the average figure you reported. Student A gets no additional funding, but Student B gets a fellowship. The average rises! But Student A doesn’t feel it. And finally, IU sets the price of tuition and then (partially) remits it. That’s a neat trick to inflate those numbers. 

Let me give you an example: John, you owe me $100,000 for the service of reading your letter. I need to make some money to make ends meet, so now I’m a professional Provost Reader. But, today I’m feeling generous and will remit that cost. And unlike IU, I’ll fully remit it without assessing fees. There! I just gave you $100,000. You can take that to the bank, John.

“The IU Bloomington campus recently invested nearly $2,000,000 in graduate student support, plus $56,000,000 in endowment gifts and pledges specifically for graduate fellowships.”

John, unless that “support” is dollars in my bank account, then we aren’t communicating well here. Like Provost Robel pointed out, graduate worker wages are generally in the vicinity of half of the cost of living in Bloomington. What I need is income, and vague promises of “support” makes me think of calliopes for some reason.

Didn’t IU just raise nearly $4,000,000,000 during the centennial? Telling us we should be grateful to get nebulous “support” equal to about 0.05% of that haul is pretty upsetting when we’re out here selling blood plasma just so we can eat.
And while it is wonderful that third parties ponied up some serious money to give a subset of graduate workers fellowships, I’m a little unclear how “other people gave money to IU to give to you” shows IU’s investment in graduate workers. Pretty bold of you to take credit for $56,000,000 of other people’s money, especially with the administrative cut IU gets from that. Thanks for taking some of the money meant for us, I guess?

If SAAs were classified as part-time employees, they would not necessarily be eligible for the various forms of compensation and benefits they currently enjoy.”

John, as a lawyer yourself, I hope you checked to see if it’s legal to threaten reprisal on people trying to unionize. (It isn’t.) Why would the union ever agree to worse benefits?

“We will continue to seek out ways to improve all aspects of graduate student experience at IU.”

The search is over, John! Tell the Trustees, because we got this one in the bag. Here’s what you need to do: recognize our union (endorsed by both a supermajority of graduate workers at IU and the Graduate and Professional Student Government), and give us a livable wage. Piece of cake, especially with that $4,000,000,000 hanging out. For the low, low cost of about 1% of that money, you can provide stability and security for your graduate workers. I’m sure IU sees returns on that money far greater than 1%, especially with all the lucrative fossil fuel investments, so we wouldn’t even dent that $4,000,000,000.

Anyway, John, I know you had a job to do. The Trustees said “jump” and you had to jump or walk away from $600,000 a year. I’ve never had to make that choice, and I won’t pretend to know what I would do at that moment. I don’t know what other factors you had to consider, like family needs.

But this letter isn’t it, John. It’s rehashed from Robel’s letter last semester–making the same flawed arguments–with a sprinkling of something you read from the first result when you Googled “how to bust a union.” I mean, come on. Claims about a union of workers being some “third party” is frankly insulting. Unions are made up of the people that work together, and I refuse to believe you don’t know that.

Claiming you’re working on our behalf while ignoring the will we’ve clearly expressed is like spitting in our face. My peers put in their time, sweat, and tears into this–and their blood plasma, too. I don’t think it’s too much to ask you to take it a little more seriously. You may have to play the heel for the Trustees, but you have to at least see that we’re suffering. Do you have any pity for us, at least? 

You make several allusions to laws that support your argument. Cite them. If you’re right and we’re wrong, let’s have it. Because if there’s a law or laws that essentially say “there’s absolutely no way graduate workers can unionize at Indiana University,” that would be extremely relevant to this discussion. Withholding it is bordering on cruel, and definitely pointless.

The alternative is that you have absolutely nothing of substance in your argument.

Finally; I don’t want you to think I’m just down on the whole thing, there is one part of the letter I thought was good. I want to talk about that too. It was a moment of clarity, and it nicely encapsulates this whole situation:

“Neither state nor federal law confers a duty to recognize or bargain with a union seeking to collectively represent public sector employees.”

Devastating, but honest. Unless compelled to do the right thing, IU will not do the right thing. Heard and understood, John. What an inspiring message, combined with a blatant falsehood.

Anyway, thanks for the letter John. I hope your scholarship is more impressive than your union-busting.


A graduate worker

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