Penn State

'I should be free to speak for myself': Penn State grad student seeks to halt union vote

Penn State has suspended Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority for misconduct related to alcohol.
Penn State has suspended Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority for misconduct related to alcohol. Centre Daily Times, file

For some Penn State graduate assistants, the upcoming vote on unionization has been a long time coming. But Michael Cronin, a doctoral student and graduate assistant, hopes to stop the union election.

Cronin, who studies energy and mineral engineering, filed a motion to intervene in the ongoing legal matter before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. The PLRB ruled on Feb. 9 that Penn State grad assistants are permitted to unionize under the Pennsylvania Employee Relations Act.

The vote is tentatively scheduled for April 10-13 at University Park, April 16 at Hershey Medical Center and April 17 at Penn State Harrisburg.

According to a press release from The Fairness Center, which represents Cronin, he seeks to halt the union election and overturn a hearing examiner's decision designating certain grad students as public employees.

In an affidavit filed Friday with the PLRB, Cronin stated, "I do not consent to the Coalition of Graduate Employees representation ... . I should be free to speak for myself."

CGE is an employee-led advocacy group and union campaign organizing the university's graduate assistants.

"We're confident that this will not derail the vote," said Jerome Clarke, co-president of CGE.

Instead of allowing the situation to be handled in a democratic fashion, this move aims to disenfranchise about 3,800 graduate employees and assistants and prevent a vote for them to advocate for themselves and their working conditions, Clarke said.

He also took issue with The Fairness Center's involvement. The center describes itself as a nonprofit public interest law firm that offers free legal services to people "hurt" by public employee union officials.

"This is an outside group that is trying to interrupt and disrupt a Penn State University issue, and it's a completely outside group that's acting by way of this one student. And we find that to be kind of suspect," Clarke said.

On Monday, CGE filed a response to Cronin's motion. The response states that his requests should be denied because the board's regulations don't permit such intervention or participation in this type of case at this time.

It also states that "his right to oppose representation is preserved through his ability to vote his conscience in any relevant election ... ."

David Osborne, president and general counsel for The Fairness Center, said in the press release that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's 1977 decision in Philadelphia Association of Interns & Residents v. Albert Einstein Medical Center clearly puts graduate assistants, like Cronin, "off-limits" for unionization.

“The court reasoned that because graduate assistants are primarily seeking education, not employment, and because their positions are temporary, they cannot be considered employees and cannot be subjected to exclusive representation," Osborne said. "However, the PLRB has ignored this precedent since the mid-1990s, and no legal challenge has been brought since.”

Penn State has made its opposition to a union clear, saying the university considers graduate assistants to be students first and foremost. The university has encouraged all eligible graduate student voters to participate in the election. A simple majority will determine the outcome.