Penn State denied us our voices

Our voices will not be silenced.

In November, five Penn State graduate employees filed requests to address Penn State’s board of trustees about our concerns and why we want a union. Our request was rejected. And despite a commitment by the Penn State administration to have an open dialogue with graduate employees, they have refused to meet with us.

On Dec. 6, graduate employees will gather in solidarity and march from the front steps of the library to Old Main, where we will issue our letter of demands as well as reiterate our demand for a meeting with university administration.

We want the board of trustees and the PSU administration to understand that we are organizing as graduate employees because of real problems that impact our lives — and how spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a union-busting law firm only delays solutions.

We were going to tell the story of a graduate employee — Kelli Knipe, a transgender woman — who has been cut off from her hormone treatment for a month because of the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating through the university’s health insurance system. If Penn State is “All In,” it needs to make that real for transgender graduate employees.

We were going to tell the story of an international graduate employee — a man from Turkey — who has been dealing for years with piles of medical debt from treatments for his wife, who was struck by a truck while crossing the street. When they welcomed their first child into the world, more medical debt followed them home, and over the years they’ve struggled to keep afloat financially. If Penn State welcomes international students, it needs to make that real for international graduate employees.

We were going to tell the story of a graduate employee — a woman in the English Department — who was prohibited from applying for a summer assistantship, but still pressured to attend conferences and produce research. The financial and institutional pressure not only drove her into debt, it made her physical and mental health suffer. If Penn State wants to develop world-class scholarship, it needs to make that possible for graduate employees.

We were going to tell the story of a graduate employee — a father in the Sociology Department — whose academic progress suffered because of a lack of institutional support for parents. When his son was born with lung issues, it set him back significantly on his own work while he cared for his family. Although he loves what he does, and loves his family, he’s left wondering how long he can juggle the demands placed on him without better institutional support. If Penn State wants to support its graduate employees, it needs to understand they have families that rely on them.

And I was going to tell my story — about my father, forced into retirement by the passage of Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10 in Wisconsin. Unions helped my family live a middle-class life, and helped me get to Penn State. Taking away union rights hurt us, and Wisconsin’s school children lost a great teacher. I know that if graduate employees have union rights, it’ll make our university better.

But Penn State denied us our voice in a short, curt email telling us these stories are not “appropriate subject matters.” They don’t want to hear about people who are struggling, and they don’t want to talk about solutions.

We are organizing a union because we think these are more than appropriate subject matters, and because of our determination to both discuss and solve them. We won’t stop — and we’ll make sure that the trustees and our university community hears our voices loud and clear.

Solutions and progress can’t wait while people are struggling.

Katie Warczak is the communications officer for the Coalition of Graduate Employees.