For two years, some Penn State graduate students have been working toward the idea of unionization.
This week, a group of educators gave them some support.
On Monday, the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent Penn State President Eric Barron, Provost Nick Jones, Vice Provost Dean Regina Vasilatos-Younken and the university trustees a letter supporting the Coalition of Graduate Employees.
The letter, according to chapter president Michelle Rodino-Colocino, asks that the CGE be permitted “to hold elections without interference from the university administration.”
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“The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has a hearing concerning this issue on Sept. 5. In that regard, the AAUP affirms the rights of graduate assistants (GAs) to decide for themselves whether or not they want to form a union,” Rodino-Colocino said in a statement. “As the letter outlines, the administration must not attempt to obstruct the CGE election process or falsely represent GAs as not working for the university. ... The GAs work hard and spend long hours teaching and conducting research, thereby enhancing the reputation of the university. The GAs’ efforts to seek representation via CGE promise to further enhance this reputation and improve relationships between faculty and students. We call on the university administration to stop all efforts to impede CGE elections.”
Contacted for comment, Penn State responded with a statement.
“Penn State views its graduate students as students, not employees. Penn State does not oppose the general concept of unions or the unionization of employees, but does not believe it is appropriate for graduate students because of the nature of their relationship with the university. We are proud of our graduate students and believe that we can continue to support their individualized needs by working with them directly,” the university said.
Penn State said it is following PLRB procedures.
“The PLRB and the courts, not Penn State, must determine whether Penn State graduate students are employees under the law, and if so, whether the petition filed by the Pennsylvania State Education Associate is appropriate under the law,” the university statement read.
The issue of status of graduate students, which exists in a gray area between students and employees, has come up at other universities, including the University of Chicago and Columbia. At Yale, students even went on a hunger strike. The issue raises questions about about what constitutes payment and what the benefits are, especially with families.