The Coalition of Graduate Employees held a “work-in” on Penn State’s campus Wednesday to demonstrate opposition to language used by the administration during a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing in September to examine the unionization effort of the university’s graduate students.
About 25 graduate students gathered in the lobby of the Kern Building outside of a Graduate Council meeting attended by university administrators. Just after the meeting ended, the group peacefully greeted attendees with signs that delivered messages such as “We are…workers” and “Penn State works because we do.”
The signs sum up CGE’s position in a dispute that goes back almost two years, according to Liana Glew, graduate instructor and doctoral candidate in the English department and CGE’s record keeper.
“We want the ability to advocate for ourselves and to have a seat at the table so when they make decisions about our health care, about transportation or about our wages, we’re there and we’re weighing in on it,” Glew said.
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In an effort to mitigate the financial burden of graduate school, Penn State offers graduate assistantships. The program provides graduate assistants with funding packages that require the student to teach or conduct research.
In 2016, 94 percent of Penn State graduate assistants were appointed to a “ 1/2-time assistantship.” Those graduate assistants 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 graduate assistants have access to health coverage, and Penn State pays 80 percent of the premium cost for individuals and 75 percent for dependents.
Penn State’s position on the issue has been clear since CGE formed and began the unionization process. The university has issued press releases and offered official comments that state its belief that graduate assistants are not employees.
“Penn State considers graduate assistants, like all graduate students, to be students first and foremost, whose primary responsibility is to earn advanced degrees,” a university release said.
In September, the two sides testified in front of the PLRB as a result of a union election petition filed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association on behalf of the CGE.
The board heard testimony for seven days from more than 20 witnesses, including administrators, faculty members and graduate students. The two sides are awaiting a post-hearing legal brief submission schedule from the PLRB. Once the briefs are filed, a hearing examiner will decide to dismiss the petition or order a graduate student union election.
If an election is held, either side can appeal the results, but according to the graduate school dean, Regina Vasilatos-Younken, that appeal could ultimately end up in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to “address this unsettled area of Pennsylvania law.”
Glew said CGE hopes the decision will come in the early part of the spring semester and an election could be held before summer.
“In this process, success looks like a better workplace,” Glew said. “Success looks like feeling represented in our workplace and having our employer call us employees and having our work recognized as such.”