In a Sept. 8 meeting, service staff employees at Purdue complained to their advocacy committee about being overworked and scared for their future employment, as well as not being informed when co-workers had contracted COVID-19.
It was the beginning of the first semester back on campus during the pandemic. In-person work carried the additional risk of contracting a highly infectious disease. A partial or full shutdown of campus seemed probable, meaning employment could cease.
Board members reached out to the vice president of human resources for potential remedies, according to online minutes from the meeting.
The vice president reportedly told concerned employees to be tested for the virus, but offered no reconciliation.
The interaction showcases the issues service workers can have when voicing concerns. They belong to no labor union and aren't permitted to form one. The closest thing these workers have to a union is the Clerical and Support Staff Advisory Committee, which held the meeting in which complaints were made.
“We advocate for all support staff on campus,” said Sara Mellady, chair of CSSAC. “Advocacy includes speaking in favor of, supporting, defending and potentially arguing for support staff. It is also recommending improvements.”
There are no unions at Purdue for tenured and adjunct staff, either; they're represented by the Management and Professional Staff Advisory Committee. As a result, University employees with complaints are represented only by advisory groups, which are part of Purdue administration and lack the same leverage to bargain.
Both organizations tout accomplishments made alongside Purdue including laying out paths for promotions, providing a 50% discount to workers' family members for Purdue Global programs and free tuition for workers themselves. But they lack independence while negotiating wages and conditions of employment, a process unions call collective bargaining.
“The issue that we're finding more and more is that the Purdue-sanctioned advocacy group's power to influence things that happen at Purdue are really limited,” said Roberta Weiner, a graduate student and member of the guiding committee at Graduate Rights & Our Well Being, a group that aims to combat Purdue-sanctioned groups' perceived lack of power.
"(The group) relies on maintaining a good relationship with the administration to get anything that it wants,” Weiner added.
While more colleges have seen collective-bargaining movements in the past few years, only four Big Ten colleges have labor unions. Those workers' unions have labor contracts with their universities that are legally binding and can aid in disputes.
The relative weakness of advocacy groups has led some workers to join alternative organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and GROW.
Weiner, who’s with GROW, says graduate students typically make low wages. She said they tend to be an exploited source of labor.
“We're somewhere in this nebulous place between being recognized as students, and being recognized as workers, and that causes a lot of problems for us,” Weiner said. “It means that it's easy to argue that we are not doing work — that we're learning.”
Purdue’s AAUP chapter mainly spearheads advocacy measures. It lacks many of the powers unions have, the local chapter's president, Alice Pawley, said, but "we're the closest thing you can get to a union for faculty on campus."
“If you’re a collective-bargaining chapter, there are legal protections and your administration is legally obligated to negotiate with you in good faith,” Pawley added. “Advocacy chapters — no such justice, no such assurances. So it's all the difference in the world.”
The AAUP, like most activist chapters and unions in Indiana, has lost large swaths of members since its founding in the 1960s, Pawley said. She attributes the drop in membership to an overarching reason: right-to-work laws.
The laws prohibit employers or labor organizations from requiring workers to become members of a union. Just under 30 states, including Indiana, have passed right-to-work laws.
As governor in 2012, Purdue President Mitch Daniels implemented many of Indiana’s right-to-work laws. Proponents of the laws say they prevent workers from paying union fees while still allowing them to benefit from collective-bargaining efforts led by their industry’s union.
But union leaders say the policies have led to the general weakening of unions due to a lack of membership and funding.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, an international labor union that represents more than 12 million members, has said that right-to-work laws make it more difficult for workers to join unions and organize effectively.
With right-to-work laws, new hires aren't required to join labor unions. In turn, employers can hire cheaper, non-union workers, so the perks of joining a labor union are diminished.
Meanwhile, a problem facing university professors is whether the desire to unionize even exists, Pawley said.
“I think the main issue is that people don’t think that faculty are workers, and faculty don’t think faculty are workers,” Pawley said. “As a result, many of the tenure-track folks who are well compensated don’t think there’s a need to unionize, but it’s actually the non-tenure-track folks and graduate students who are marginalized in every way and need our support.”
Both GROW and AAUP are skeptical about the likelihood of future unionization at Purdue. But Pawley notes that there are some encouraging numbers that may imply a resurgence of advocacy for workers.
“Back in the 60s there were around 200 faculty members. We’re currently around 80-ish, but when I started there were only 20 (members),” Pawley said. “So it’s growing now that more people know there’s a chapter on campus.”
Pawley attributes the jump in membership to the work AAUP has done to help professors in dealing with administrative concerns.
“I had people join as a result of communicating over the summer that faculty should be able to determine their own mode of instruction,” Pawley said. “You have the right to determine how you teach.”