After months of build-up and preparation, hundreds of students, campus employees, and city residents went on strike at Indiana University on April 11 – 12, 2013. A number of things are interesting about this struggle from an anti-authoritarian perspective, including a heightened focus on collective action as a way of building power, and a dismissal of dialogue with the administration as unimportant and distracting.
In this piece, Sasha interviews Roger and Mona, two organizers for the strike, about their experiences during that time and reflections they’ve since had.
Sasha: Why did you participate in the strike? And what were its stated goals?
Mona: The strike came out of the Occupy U assembly, and that morphed into the IU On Strike assembly. Having been a part of Occupy Bloomington and then Occupy U, I followed that trajectory and ended up in the Strike Assembly. Do you want to talk about the goals a little bit?
Roger: When the assemblies first started there was a really good effort to spread awareness that they were happening. I don’t exactly remember how I heard about them, but I did hear pretty early on. I had been a little more distant from people who were doing Occupy at the time. Some stated goals, well there was a list of demands but really I feel like the goals of the strike were pretty diverse, which was really nice. Even though there was this list of demands, it didn’t really matter. They existed as a jumping off point, but they weren’t the end goal. I think a lot of peoples end goal was just the destruction of the university, so ultimately reducing tuition didn’t matter. But I would say it also picked up on all of the financial crisis talk, so austerity was a lot of the logic that people used to present it.
Mona: Maybe we can talk more about the demands, if that seems important. But like Roger said, the goals of the strike weren’t strictly to have these six demands met by the administration. It was more like an opening up of activity and challenging power on campus. So it wasn’t a strict program, but really trying to shift those power dynamics and build collectively the power of the students, workers, and faculty against the administration and their austerity measures and their racism.
Roger: And what also feels important to go back and mention is that the dates of the strike coincided with the trustees meeting. So it’s interesting that there were in these ways of “speaking towards power,” and a lot of debate that went around whether it should even be on the date of the trustees meeting if ultimately we’re not exactly trying to acknowledge or appeal to them.
But really quickly, some of the demands were:
- Stop privatization and outsourcing at IU. At the time there was a lot of parking lots were going to be outsourced, and parking spaces.
- End the wage freeze for workers.
- Critiques about the promise IU made for enrollment for African American students, and how low the numbers were.
- Abolishing both HB-1402 and SB-590, which said that students who were undocumented, they couldn’t have in-state tuition.
- And then no retaliation for the strike.
I think one thing that was really interesting was how when we were talking about the strike, we tried to connect it to broader things. There was a lot of talk about universities cutting their funding for incarcerated people, they were losing their ability to get a college degree. That happened around this time, and we thought it was important to draw attention to that, to make sure it wasn’t just swept under the rug.
Mona: So that brings me back to the question of why I participated in the strike. I liked the openness of that, that it wasn’t a strict program, but it really had the space for people to bring to it what they wanted. If this thing about college education for people in prison in Indiana was something they cared about, that would be tied in. If it’s about the wage freeze, that can be tied in too. So both the content was open and everybody was able to contribute to it, that seems like qualitatively different than a lot of organizing and activity, and then sort of the structure of the organizing too, like the open assemblies where we tried to make it so that anybody who wanted to say something could say something, without having hierarchies there or leaders of the meeting. And so I liked both the openness of the structure and content, and that was important to me at a time when I was developing these skills and getting into this kind of organizing. It was a good opportunity to learn how to do some of those things and to practice taking initiative, and things like that.
Sasha: Did you say there was a wage freeze? Like, the university said workers can’t make more than a certain amount, and one of the demands was to end that?
Mona: Yeah, the wage freeze was that for a few years the university stopped giving wage increases to most of the workers. Administrators, they found workarounds for that, they would get bonuses still, but all the other workers at the university didn’t get raises for a few years because “they couldn’t afford it,” and it was spun like everyone had to do their part for the goodness of the university. But it always becomes clear who actually has to sacrifice, and it’s not the administration, right?
Roger: And they started scheduling working hours so nobody was at 40 hours. Everyone was capped at like 29. One thing that was pointed out too was a lot of jobs were shifting to being volunteers or unpaid interns around that time. A lot of people were losing their jobs and getting replaced by students.
Mona: I think this was also the time that some temp agency, Manpower, was being brought in to fill these spots. The university fired all the groundskeepers I think, and hired Manpower to fill those positions. They told people, “oh no you can keep your job, you just have to go back through Manpower.” But then there were all these tests that were obvious barriers because they wanted to keep certain people out of jobs.
Sasha: What do you think you gained from your experiences organizing for the strike?
Roger: One thing, besides getting the understanding of what works and what doesn’t by people who were older than me who were doing things with a certain logic, is that we pushed a lot against the limits of what a strike could look like, and we learned to be creative. A strike didn’t just have to look like the traditional pickets, and that narrative was spread a lot, and we really tried to communicate that to a lot of people. This idea of “strike” could be any number of things. Ultimately we’re taking this break the norm and that’s maybe the broad definition of it, but it didn’t just have to look like us not going to classes, and I think that was also a way to get many people involved who could meet their own comfort levels. I think that was really successful, taking these very basic ideas and bringing them to people.
Mona: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Another point that was really interesting to me, that I was just engaging with for the first time, and there was a lot of debate around this, was how we really tried to push that we’re not just debating with the administration, like we didn’t want to “come to their table.” But rather build power ourselves, because sitting at the negotiation table with the administration doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have any power. Also it was interesting how the IU on Strike assembly was officially dissolved after the strike, specifically to avoid the institutionalization or the formality of an organization, because that really wasn’t the spirit of the strike. There was also a lot of debate around that, and I think some people still think that that was a mistake, to have dissolved that name because it did get so much attention. But I think that’s another example of like the interesting logic and the way that it pushed “activism” into a more interesting and more effective direction.
Roger: And I think on those lines, a lot of people were pushing for us to become a formalized student union, you know. I think the grad students were definitely pushing for a grad student union, but along the same lines trying to push back against this formalization of what we were, because it wasn’t just a group of students. That also feels important to say. There were a lot of people in town and workers on campus that felt affected by these things. So if we just rallied behind this single identity it just would become useless for most people and would be something a lot of us weren’t interested in. And wrapped into that is these critiques we pushed against unions in general, like we were having to deal with unions…
Mona: …being against the strike.
Roger: Unions for workers at IU were against the strike, and were intimidating their own workers, and retaliating against their own workers for participating.
Mona: For public employees in Indiana it’s in their contract that it’s illegal to strike. And so really, with the union structure they had no choice but to be against the strike, but it’s an obvious implication: maybe unions aren’t the best way to go about things.
Roger: And we were trying for something beyond that, which would allow people to fight for their own reasons and give space for that.
Mona: One more thing on that: I think one of the most important things for me was meeting people. Like I kinda met Roger through the strike, and lots of other people that are my close friends five years later. And I think that’s a particular kind of relationship to build, to like be working and organizing together. Getting to know each other on that level, and lots of those friendships lasting still to this day…
Mona: It’s actually like one of the best things about the strike.
Roger: Yeah. And just being able to always be around each other, because it was almost this daily thing that we were all having to do leading up to it. Just getting to know people and what their thoughts are. So then getting to experience playing out our own beliefs and see what we’re each interested in, like a testing ground.
Sasha: What do you think you all, being the general people going on strike, did well? And what do you think you could have done better?
Roger: Part of what we tried to do well was to set up a hotline and e-mail for workers to contact if they were facing repression, so they could send their information to us anonymously, and we would know what trouble people were in, without them having to show up publicly. It seemed smart that we covered this base, although I don’t think it was used that much, but we were trying to think ahead as much as possible and cover our bases, we did a lot of that pretty well.
Mona: Yeah, and I remember that it was used at some point after the strike. One of the RPS food service workers had been threatened, and so one of the last activities after the days of the strike was we had this demo at the RPS office in support of workers who were striking or organizing. And it felt really good to like actually follow up on those things that we had tried to be pre-emptive about.
Roger: And another thing I think we did pretty well was really carving out a space on campus that was relatively free for us to use. We pretty much took over an entire building, and part of that was because teachers were on board with us with the strike. So they weren’t holding their classes there, or they were holding alternative classes. But really I think that feels like a huge precedent that we set, that like, if we made it so known that the strike was going to happen, and there was so much backing behind it, that we were able to basically take over this building for two days.
Sasha: Which building?
Roger: Woodburn. It was actually a strong hub for food and meetings.
Mona: It seemed to be pretty important that there was a central place for people to go in-between things and share food and stuff. But one of the critiques of the strike was that the downside of having that centralization is it made the strike less visible across the rest of campus. Woodburn is right in the middle, so it’s a good location. But then there’s all the locations on the periphery where maybe people couldn’t tell the strike was happening. So people tried to organize pickets both through departments and at different buildings throughout campus. But due to weather and people being too busy with just making sure things happened, it didn’t occur that much.
Roger: A lot of the efforts to get the pickets to happen felt like last minute attempts, like “oh we need these pickets,” but I think it was not that successful. Maybe with more mobilization that would have worked. On the other hand, there was a huge snake march that happened throughout campus that had over 300 people in it. And I think that brought a lot of visibility for the first day, and everyone was hanging outside their classroom windows, yelling whatever at us.
Mona: *laughs* Some good things, some bad. A little bit of both.
Sasha: What’s a snake march?
Roger: It just winded throughout campus.
Mona: Hopefully a little bit more unpredictable than marches happen in town now. I think outreach was really good with the strike, and I can’t say that for most things that I have been a part of. I mean, I was obviously in sort of a bubble, but it really felt like campus knew about it. There were stories about it, both for or against, or liberal waffling bullshit in the IDS all the time. People were wearing these red squares that came out of Montreal student stuff. And so that was a way that people could support the strike, and you could like notice how many red squares you see when you’re walking to class or whatever. People could participate in that way, even if they didn’t want to come to assemblies or whatever.
It really made it feel like there was this palpable thing at the university, that people were anticipating it and supporting it. There were a few smaller assemblies too, there were grad students organizing together, the school of social work put out a letter of support. In a lot of ways it generalized more so than anything else I’ve really been a part of. And that took a lot of work, you know? We went to talk to classes all the time, we flyered and chalked, and wrote stuff for the newspaper. And that all kind of paid off.
Roger: Yeah. And maybe this was just because things hadn’t happened on campus really in a while, but a lot of professors were behind it. They supported the strike because a lot of them were excited to do some kind of alternative schooling for the day. We made it easy for them to get involved and still be professors. I mean, there can be many critiques about that but I think it still was nice that a lot of professors supported it.
Mona: Yeah. A few other things that I think could have been better. Even though a lot turned out well, we still could have been a lot better organized. There were a lot of things that were left last minute, like the food and picketing. And that’s totally fair that we were all learning how to do this together, but we definitely could have been a little bit more efficient. I’m sure too that there were things we could have done to be a little more accessible. Like if someone worked on Monday nights, they couldn’t come to the assembly. Or maybe that environment was intimidating for some people. And so I think we probably could have found more ways to include more people, but that’s like always the case I guess.
I feel like we spent a lot of time very tediously debating things in assembly, and this in itself was a debate, like is assembly a time where we debate each other and consent on a certain way to do things? Or is this a space for us to share initiatives that we’re going to do and find other people to do with, and be inspired by each other? And so there were many times when we had that argument, like do you need to get this approved by the assembly or do you not? We spent so much of the time having those discussions and trying to figure out how to work together in a semi-formal kind of way. And that’s always going to be hard, but maybe we could have been more efficient with that, which would have given us more time and energy to do the things that we needed to do.
Roger: At least I feel like that taught us a lot, and our frustrations really made it so now I’m like, “ugh, just do what you want to do! Why are we talking about this?!” And that crystalized a lot for me, just feeling very frustrated by people going on and on about one thing.
Mona: I did learn a lot from seeing some of that play out, and it helped me figure out where I stand on some of those things. So even though it’s kind of awkward, tedious, and kind of annoying, I do think there’s some value to it.
Roger: Some learning experience.
Sasha: If you have any dreams or visions of another world without capitalism, does the university as an institution exist in them?
Mona: As an institution? Of course not.
Mona: I’m not so much for the pre-figurative thing, but I imagine that lots of people will, in my ideal world, want to pursue education beyond what’s just necessary or general education. Like some people are wingnuts about a certain thing, or really fascinating by a something, and I really want them to be able to pursue that as much as they can. And people can learn from each other, but it wouldn’t be an institution that especially exists for profit and social control, it would be more collective and self-guided education.
Roger: I think learning can look like many different things, but it can’t when it looks like a university.
Mona: Yeah. It would be unrecognizable to what it currently exists as a university.
Sasha: Do you think it’s worth time and energy to reform the university? And are there attainable goals you can see that might come out of student struggles?
Roger: For me, it depends on what the reform might look like. It’s so easy to fall into traps with those things, and just be stuck in this cycle that doesn’t actually feel good. Like, if we were holding tight to getting these demands met, we wouldn’t get anywhere. If reform was coming out of us having dialogue with the university, then we’re going to get nowhere. But I think there are many ways to push back against things.
Mona: To the question of if it’s worth trying to reform the university, I’d say occasionally. Generally how I approach reforms, or like organizing and struggling for reforms, which I end up doing a lot, is that they should be things that build our capacity and give us more space to move. I’m not so into the reforms that are based on morality or injustice, because that just doesn’t really work for me. And that does for some people, and that’s fine. But strategic things that give us a little bit more freedom, or anything that makes it easier for us to do know what we need to do. Which is like, meeting each other, and trying to live free lives as much as we can. There are a lot of reforms that can contribute to that, like lowering tuition would give us a lot more room to move if people didn’t have to work two jobs while going to school, and not have any time to do anything else. That’s a really concrete example of how a reform could build our capacity.
But reforms for their own sake, I think that’s a losing battle. Most things can be framed as building our capacity, so I think we have to be critical and realistic about what are we giving up for that. Because it’s also a trade-off. If you spend all your time and energy asking for reforms, then you don’t have time to do other things, so I think that has to be part of the calculation. Is this reform worth it because it’s actually going to improve our lives and make us more powerful? I don’t see that calculation being done very often, and it’s more of this moral obligation, especially with campus stuff right now. Not just in Bloomington, but across the US it seems to be very moral outrage/injustice stuff. And that’s just not what motivates me.
Roger: I agree.
Mona: *laughs* Maybe that just makes me a hardened anarchist. But I think we need to keep the broader strategy in mind when we’re fighting for reforms. Like, where does this move us ahead in our struggle for total liberation. And attainable goals?
Sasha: I think you answered that with what you were saying, ultimately building capacity to fight.
Mona: I think there’s lots of little things that are attainable, like better policies for students who are Trans, or challenging racist policies. I think that lots of these things are attainable, and we see them on occasion, like the sanctuary campus struggle that peaked a couple of months ago in Bloomington, but is still ongoing. I don’t really think it’s attainable because of the money and ways that the university and state government are intertwined, and all that the university has at stake. I don’t actually think it’s going to happen, but I think it could push things in a better direction, like getting something from the university for example that they won’t give information to ICE in a certain circumstances. That’s something, and it makes people who are undocumented feel a little safer, and that does give us a little more capacity to fight, and struggle in larger ways.
Roger: It often feels like people think they just have to say the right words, and the university will see their reasons, and then be like, “oh, I see the light now, I was wrong.” And that’s just not what I think makes sense for understanding where they’re coming from. If you’re just like, “oh, how CAN you arrest people who are undocumented?!” But clearly they have all this money and things tied to it, so begging them is not going to do anything.
Mona: Clearly Provost Robel is a monster, and no op-ed or letter or really moving soap box at an event is going to change her mind. Like, she’s not morally swayable, and I think that goes for anybody in those positions.
Sasha: I’m glad you called her a monster.
Roger: It does seem important to note that we were battling with her during the strike…
Roger: …and doing sit-ins then. I feel like that memory has been lost, people just now are like, “oh, look what Robel said?!” It’s like, yeah, she’s been saying monstrous stuff for years! If people had that kind of knowledge or any kind of research into the past, it would be easier to understand how to come to head with her.
Mona: She was reprehensible during the strike. She tried to say all these things about how she really values civil disobedience but we weren’t doing it right. Or saying, “You should be expect to be arrested if you’re organizing, and you deserve that, but its part of the sacrifice you’re making.” So there was this one demonstration at her office, and something happened at the office…
Roger: Somebody grabbed candy.
Mona: Somebody grabbed candy from her candy dish, people left fliers all around her office. And so then she did this thing, which she’s still doing now, where suddenly she’s the victim. Like she’s been so “violated” because that happened in her office. And it’s just like when she started to cry during the state of the campus thing. She’s had these patterns for a long time, and that history is useful for figuring out how to engage with her in the future, which is hopefully mostly non-engagement except maybe trolling her.
Sasha: Lastly, do you have any moment or moments from the strike that you remember especially fondly that you want to relay now?
Roger: Living there in that moment felt very powerful, it felt like there were so many people that were coming together, and it felt like an actual shift that was taking place in the university. Even if it was just for a moment. I think those small moments are always really important to remember.
Mona: The three things that stand out to me. One was the art school occupation that was earlier in Fall semester 2012. Dozens of people just stayed overnight in the art school auditorium, and there were some texts that came out of that which can be found on the internet. The logic and framing of it was way more interesting than lots of university occupations, so that was one thing.
When we were coming up with the demands, we debated for weeks and weeks about how to do the demands, and ultimately it culminated in this meeting at a house, where we drew imaginary lines in the kitchen, two axis. One axis was how reasonable they should the demands be, on one end was really unreasonable, things we can imagine the administration granting, on the other end were things totally unreasonable. The other axis was how many, very few demands at one end, a lot of demands to cover all our bases at the other. So we all went into the kitchen where all these axes were, and stood somewhere in one of the quadrants to indicate what we wanted the demands to be. I think that visual way of seeing where everybody else was at was very interesting, because you can’t really do that when you’re just having a discussion, right? So to see that everybody was bunched up at a few unreasonable demands made it a little more obvious what direction we could go in. I just thought that was a really creative and interesting way to really actually stake out your position and also see where other people are at. And it was fun.
Roger: One thing I was going to say was it felt like because things were happening all over different universities, we were definitely in conversation with other places, which felt really nice. People were actually visibly inspired by what we were doing, we were inspired by what other campuses were doing, and that felt also like a huge thing.
Mona: You bring up a good point that this was happening in the context of lots of university struggles across the US. There was lots of stuff happening in California in 2012, and we definitely pulled some stuff from the New School in New York during 2009. And so it really was part of this ethos of a thing, which made what we were trying to do feel less desperate and alone.
Roger: I think because it was being talked about nationally, it gave us more credibility in some ways. That credibility that we weren’t just students doing this random thing, which was probably unfortunate, but also nice because it showed that a lot of people were angry and they couldn’t ignore it.
Mona: I think the objectively most beautiful moment of the strike was at the end of the second day. Roger talked about earlier how we had Woodburn as the strike hub for both days. And we had been on the fence about if we were going to keep it or try to keep it overnight, but on the night of Monday the 11th…
Roger: The police decided for us if we were going to stay there or not,
Mona: Yes, and they came in early too. The building is supposed to be closed at 10 PM, and so we were having an assembly and discussing what we were going to do, and they came in at like 9:40 and immediately kicked everybody out. But obviously that didn’t go completely smoothly, and one window on one of the doors got broken when they were shoving everybody out, so one person was arrested for that. There was also a little bit of a stand-off afterwards because the police were being a little more aggressive than they usually are in Bloomington.
Roger: And there were a lot of undercovers that we realized were also among us, or they tried to make among us. But it was all IU cadets that were coming at us full force, like the whole force of IU cadets.
Mona: So they were able to kick us out, but when they arrested this person there was obviously a lot of anger about that. And they sort of ended up retreating back into Woodburn after they kicked us all out, so that at least felt like a moment of some collective power, even though we had just been kicked out of the strike hub. So then we did a noise demo at the jail…
Roger: It was raining too, and that was a bit demoralizing, which I think will also come into what you’re going to say about the next day.
Sasha: A noise demo meaning a bunch of people standing outside a jail and making noise with banners so that people in jail see they’re being supported?
Mona: Yeah, and we did that from Woodburn to the jail, with a sound system and banners, waiting for them to get out. Anyway, the next night we talked again about what we were going to do and we decided to not try to keep it overnight, assuming that we would just be kicked out again. And so some people had prepared lyric sheets for us all to sing “Bella Ciao” together as we walked out of Woodburn, arm and arm. A few people led us in that song, and we all picked up on it, and we marched out together.
Roger: It was so beautiful, like way too beautiful a moment.
Mona: I feel like we don’t get a lot of those, so that one of the highlights. Leaving on our own terms, and having this sense of cohesion, which was true or not true in some cases. But a real feeling of cohesion and collective power, and singing this really beautiful song too.
Roger: And we did it all the way from Woodburn to the Sample Gates while some cops trailed behind us, and then we stood at Sample Gates for awhile singing, until we decided to leave.
Mona: And then we all lost it cuz we didn’t know what to do after the strike.
Roger: But we all know Bella Ciao really well to this day!
Mona: *laughs* Yes, and we still sing it together.
Sasha: That song is really nice.
Roger: No one who was there could forget the lyrics after repeating them for 20 minutes.
For more information about the strike, check out iuonstrike-blog.tumblr.com and rififibloomington.wordpress.com