In February, the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State filed for union representation with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, but on Monday Penn State President Eric Barron released a letter in opposition to the coalition’s unionization efforts.
Following the filing in February, CGE presented the administration with a letter signed by alumni, local government officials and labor unions asking for “full neutrality and non-interference” with the unionization process.
The university then released a statement recognizing the graduate students’ rights to begin the unionization process, but said “Penn State considers graduate assistants, like all graduate students, to be students first and foremost, whose primary responsibility is to earn advanced degrees.”
Barron expanded on the university’s position Monday.
“Penn State does not oppose the concept of unions or the unionization of employees,” Barron said in a statement. “However, the University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. For this reason, Penn State opposes this petition for representation with the PLRB.”
The CGE formed just more than a year ago in an effort to engage in a dialogue with the university about wages, health care, working conditions and the grievance process for graduate students.
Barron’s letter on Monday encouraged an “open dialogue about graduate student unionization,” but Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, chief media officer and spokesman for the CGE, said the university has not responded to requests for a meeting.
“When we started this we were willing to meet, and we were open to having a dialogue with the president about how we can move forward in a way that’s amicable,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “We asked for a meeting, and we have not heard back. We’re disappointed, but we think it’s pretty clear that the letter is the beginning of an anti-union campaign.”
Penn State graduate students are not the first to attempt unionization. Duke University and Cornell University graduate students have tried to unionize within the past year, but both groups were countered by the universities with anti-union campaigns that spread misinformation, Sherman-Wilkins said.
Cornell voted in March to unionize, and 1775 ballots were cast: 919 voted against and 856 voted in favor of unionization. There are 81 unresolved ballots, and the university will have an arbitrator resolve the ballots by May, according to a Cornell University statement.
The National Labor Relations Board has been ruling on graduate student unions since 1972 when the board ruled that graduate students at Adelphi University would not be included in an employee union because they were “primarily students.”
Almost 30 years later, the NLRB reversed its position in a case involving graduate research and teaching assistants at Boston Medical Center. The board ruled that the designation of “student” and “employee” does not need to be mutually exclusive, and students who perform duties of an employee can be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. A similar ruling was made by the board in 2000 when a group of grad students at New York University were allowed to unionize.
In 2004, Brown University successfully challenged the NYU ruling. In its decision to overturn the NYU case, the board argued that the graduate student’s ability to collectively bargain could negatively affect the educational process, student-teacher relationships and academic freedom.
Barron’s letter makes a similar argument, Sherman-Wilkins said.
“For some reason there’s this narrative that somehow having a union come into the university impacts the relationship between the mentor and the mentee, it lessens academic freedom or impedes the work of graduate employees,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “That’s false.”
He cited a study conducted at Cornell in 2013, called “The Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom and Play.”
The results of the study find that “unionization might have no impact or even a positive impact on those relationships. In the unionized departments we surveyed, students reported better personal and professional support relationships with their primary advisors than were reported by their nonunion counterparts.”
“I think the evidence is pretty clear that unions have a positive effect on universities,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “But when we get into the weeds on what the studies show, we get away from the issues of living wage, health care and the grievance process.”
In 2016, 94 percent of Penn State graduate students were appointed to a “ 1/2 time assistantship.” Those graduate students received a stipend amount of $20,837. The assistantship allows for 20 hours per week of duties over a 36-week period, which equates to $28.94 per hour, according to Penn State. The grad students have access to health coverage, and Penn State pays 80 percent of the premium cost for individuals and 75 percent for dependents.
The compensation benefits the university released are correct, Sherman-Wilkins said, but when broken down it becomes clear why grad students are “struggling to make ends meet.”
Graduate students receive tuition benefits for the summer, but the stipend is usually the sole source of income throughout the calendar year because of the time the workload demands, he said.
After taxes are taken out, graduate students are making about $2,000 per month. The low wages, high workload, no overtime policy and the health-care premium increase in 2016, galvanized the CGE’s decision to unionize, Sherman-Wilkins said.
The next step in the process is to hold a union election. The more than 3,700 graduate students at the university will have an opportunity to vote at poling places around campus. If a simple majority of the graduate students vote yes, the union is officially formed and the CGE will begin the negotiation process with the university.
The union vote is expected in 2017, but there is no official timetable set by the CGE.