As a Penn State graduate assistant, Chad Drexler is part of a group that conducts research in the department of chemistry — but he’s also part of another group of students who are beginning to make their voices heard.
He’s not among the graduate students pushing for a union. On the contrary, he’s part of a growing chorus who are adamantly opposed.
Several graduate students recently contacted the Centre Daily Times to echo Drexler’s concern about their peers’ unionization efforts, which began almost one year ago since the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State filed paperwork with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Drexler and others believe the structure of the funding package is good as it is: a 20-hour workweek, a $21,700 stipend on average for the 36-week academic year and university medical coverage for assistants.
Penn State offers higher stipend amounts to attract top graduate students and Ph.D candidates to the university, according to Regina Vasilatos-Younken, dean of the Graduate School. A dramatic increase in the base packages, Drexler and others have said, risks making the graduate program less competitive.
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“This is a matter of stability,” Drexler added. “Of course we know that it can happen anywhere, but if I were applying all over again, it’s something that could make me change my mind because the stability of the programs are now unknown.”
Drexler’s stipend is higher than the average, but he recently switched to the university’s health care plan, which requires him to pay a monthly premium. To help afford his living expenses, Drexler lives off-campus with roommates. His living arrangement allows him to make ends meet as he pursues a higher education degree from one of the top research institutions in the country.
Andrew Veenis and his wife are also in opposition to the unionization efforts. Veenis is a Ph.D candidate and his wife is a graduate student. His stipend is above the average, his wife’s is below and the couple takes advantage of the university’s medical coverage.
“I definitely think forming a union would be detrimental to the university and it would be detrimental to the resources we have as graduate students and just overall for our education,” Veenis said. “And I’m here as a student. I’m not here as an employee and I’m not here to make a wage. I’m here to learn.”
The coalition doesn’t see it that way and its attempt to unionize, which is firmly opposed by Penn State, came on the heels of a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 that allowed graduate assistants at private universities to form unions. Following the official filing in February, the past year has presented several opportunities for the two sides to express their positions.
Penn State stuck to prepared statements, which centered on the university’s belief that graduate students are “students first and foremost, whose primary responsibility is to earn advanced degrees.” In response, the coalition took to the picket line, where members argued that their teaching and research duties, which are compensated by a graduate student funding package, should be considered labor.
In September, the two sides had an opportunity to argue their case in front of the PLRB. Over the course of seven days, more than 20 witnesses testified on behalf of both sides.
The PLRB is reviewing the case and on Monday a representative for the PLRB said there is no timetable for a decision. She declined to say whether a decision would even come this calendar year.