For more than two years, the Coalition of Graduate Employees has been pushing to unionize graduate assistants at Penn State. On Tuesday, the vote begins.
Almost 3,800 graduate assistants, including research and teaching assistants, are eligible to vote in the multiday election that spans several of Penn State's campuses.
The fight for the right to vote
On Labor Day in 2015, a group of more than 60 graduate students attended a kick-off event on Old Main lawn as CGE began the unionization push.
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In December of that year, CGE selected the Pennsylvania State Education Association to help the coalition in the organizing effort.
In February 2017, a group of Penn State graduate assistants filed for a union representation election with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. A seven-day hearing was held in September, with Penn State arguing that graduate assistants aren't employees.
On Feb. 9, the PLRB ruled in CGE's favor, saying that grad assistants are permitted to unionize under the Pennsylvania Employee Relations Act.
“We’re considered employees because we do work for the university. We’re certainly students; nobody’s denying that. … But we’re also doing research, we’re also doing teaching for the university that we’re paid for and we receive a W-2 for. And the labor is valuable to the university,” said Katie Warczak, CGE media officer.
The argument for a union
"A union is really essential because it provides us with additional security to keep the things that we really need and to not just survive grad school but also to maybe even thrive in grad school and just so that we have a say in the things that matter to us," said Warczak, who's pursuing a master's degree in English.
CGE is advocating for unionization to give graduate assistants a say in their stipends, health care and benefits and working conditions.
The system at Penn State isn't "broken beyond repair," Warczak said, but a union can help make improvements.
For example, in cases where graduate students are facing sexual harassment or discrimination, the channels that are already in place might involve the people in power who are causing the issue, she said. A union would "supplement" existing channels and ideally feel safer for graduate assistants and give them more resources.
Graduate assistants may only be at the university for a limited period, from two to seven years, but a lot can happen in that time, she said.
“I love the university, I love the work and I love the support that I get both from the department and from the package that Penn State offers me. But I also know that just because something’s good now doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good forever,” Warczak said.
And maybe some people are doing great, but others aren't, said Harrison Cole, CGE co-president. Some graduate assistants might be in situations that could really benefit from union representation.
"Making sure that ... the school is a supportive environment for everybody, I think, is worth going out of your way for,” said Cole, a Ph.D. candidate in geography.
In late March, 70 faculty members signed on to a letter to the administration, asking that the university "drop its needless and counterproductive opposition to the efforts of the CGE," and expressing the hope that "Penn State will honor the results of the vote, whatever it may be."
The letter cites the example of the University of Michigan, which has had a graduate student union for more than 40 years, saying that the union has not harmed faculty-student relationships, nor has it prevented the university from maintaining its status as one of the most distinguished public universities in the nation.
According to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, there are 33 graduate student unions in the United States. The only one in Pennsylvania is at Temple University, which, like Penn State, is a state-related university.
What's happening at Penn State is indicative of what's happening around the United States, said Lucy Harlow, of PSEA, adding that she thinks young people are recognizing their need to have a voice in the economy.
“I think at the end of the day ... what we want is a voice in the system, and a meaningful one,” Warczak said.
"And a democratic one," Cole added.
'We feel that graduate students don’t need a union'
According to Penn State, the minimum stipend for graduate assistants is $19,620 for 36 weeks, but the average stipend is $21,762. Ninety-seven percent of graduate assistantships are half-time appointments, meaning 20 hours of work per week. Graduate assistants also receive tuition remission for each semester that they have an assistantship.
The university also contributes 80 percent of the annual medical premium for graduate assistants and 75-76 percent for dependent coverage, according to Penn State.
Penn State estimates that total value of graduate student funding packages, on average, range from about $50,000 to $65,000 per year.
Penn State's opposition to a union hasn't wavered. University officials maintain that graduate assistants are students first and foremost.
“We feel that graduate students don’t need a union," said Regina Vasilatos-Younken, dean of Penn State's Graduate School.
There are various avenues at the university where graduate students can have their voices heard, she said, including the Graduate and Professional Student Association.
Vasilatos-Younken said it's common for different departments to involve graduate students, and larger programs also sometimes even have their own graduate student organizations.
For graduate assistants with grievances, who don't feel comfortable going through their department, Vasilatos-Younken said there's a dedicated associate dean for Graduate Student Affairs who serves as an advocate for all graduate students.
Aside from the belief that a union isn't necessary, Vasilatos-Younken said the university has concerns about how a union would affect graduate education at Penn State, including possibly negatively influencing the graduate student-faculty relationship and making the university less competitive.
In addition, Vasilatos-Younken said there's a lot of uncertainty at this point about what a union would bring.
"If there were a union, no one can predict what a final contract would look like," she said. "That’s one of the realities because the law says you have to make what’s called a good faith effort — so you certainly have to make an effort to meet, consider proposals from both sides, but ultimately there’s no legal requirement that any concession has to be made, that any one party’s terms have to be accepted by the other."
Michael Cronin, a doctoral student and graduate assistant studying energy and mineral engineering who was represented by The Fairness Center, filed a motion to intervene in the ongoing legal matter before the PLRB in late March in an effort to stop the vote from even happening. The PLRB denied his request.
Cronin said he feels he's being forced improperly into the bargaining unit. So if the union prevails, CGE will become the sole representative for him, and he'll no longer have his own voice or control his own destiny, which he said is problematic.
“This whole union effort has been branded as student empowerment, student choice," Cronin said. "Yet, it’s very puzzling that future graduate students, who haven’t even decided to apply yet, are being deprived of their ability to freely choose.”
Cronin isn't the only graduate assistant opposed to the idea of unionization.
The group Penn State Students Opposed to Graduate Assistant Unionization formed because some students felt that the only opposition voice was coming from the administration.
Among those students' concerns is that all assistant types are lumped into the same bargaining unit, said Rachel Walker, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences and member of PSSOGAU.
Research assistants and teaching assistants have different needs that wouldn't be represented by a "one size fits all" union bargaining unit, especially research assistants because their work duties are very close to their academic duties, Walker said. She's also worried that a union might interfere with the "academic freedom" of research assistants.
What happens next?
The vote will be determined by a simple majority of those who cast a ballot. According to the PLRB, the ballots will all be counted on April 24.
“If, for some reason, there is just a sudden landslide of ‘no’ votes, which, to be honest, would be a shock and I would probably fall over … then at that point it’s kind of like ‘OK people really, I guess, don’t want this,' " Warczak said.
That would likely be the end of it, she said, though that's not to say there wouldn't be another unionization effort eventually down the road.
If it was a "no" vote by only a small margin, she said, CGE would likely contest the results just to make sure everything was counted properly and that the election proceeded as it was supposed to.
But Warczak said CGE isn't expecting a "no" vote. The coalition anticipates victory.
“Obviously, we hope the administration will, in the event of a 'yes' vote, we hope they’ll make the rest of the process as smooth as possible because they’ve already dragged it out for quite a long time. We should have been voting a while back,” Cole said.
And will the university challenge or appeal a "yes" vote?
“I really can’t say at this point because we need to wait and see what the outcome will be. I never like to predict. I’m a scientist and so I wait for the data to come in,” Vasilatos-Younken said.
Should a union be established, CGE will draft local bylaws, elect a bargaining team and issue a demand to bargain with Penn State. PSEA will be a resource to CGE and as involved as union members want it to be, the coalition says.
Not all 3,800 graduate students would automatically be in the union. Individuals would need to sign up to be members and pay dues. CGE expects the yearly dues will be $193, and a portion of that money will go to PSEA and the National Education Association.
Nonmembers would still be represented by the union, but wouldn't get a vote.
While it's currently legal to make nonmembers in a bargaining unit pay "fair share" fees (less than union dues) because they still get representation, Warczak said those might be ruled unconstitutional this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, and even if they aren't, it wouldn't be something that the coalition plans to bargain into a contract.
If there were ever a strike, it would have to be voted on by the union members, and even then, individuals could choose not to participate, she said.
Union vote details
- 9 a.m.-5 p.m., April 10, Bennett Pierce Living Center, Henderson Building
- 11 a.m.-7 p.m., April 11, Charles W. Mann Jr. Assembly Room, Paterno Library
- 11 a.m.-7 p.m., April 12, Charles W. Mann Jr. Assembly Room, Paterno Library
- 10 a.m.-5 p.m., April 13, Room W202 and W203, Millennium Science Complex
- noon-4 p.m., April 16, Room C-1845, Biomedical Research Building
Penn State Harrisburg
- 3-6 p.m., April 17, Morrison Gallery, Penn State Harrisburg Library
Graduate employees at the Great Valley and Behrend campuses will vote via mail ballot, which will be mailed April 9 and must be returned to and received by the PLRB by 5 p.m. April 23.
Voters may be required, at the discretion of the board agent conducting the election, to present identification, such as a student ID.