Grad employees are the face of the new union movement

Shakil Rabbi, a graduate student in English, speaks at a Coalition of Graduate Employees picnic on Labor Day 2015.
Shakil Rabbi, a graduate student in English, speaks at a Coalition of Graduate Employees picnic on Labor Day 2015. Centre Daily Times, file

For more than a century, union members have been celebrating the first Monday in September as Labor Day — a day set aside for parades and events that honor the contributions that workers have made to the economic strength and democracy of our country.

But on Labor Day 2016, there will be a new group of union supporters joining the labor movement celebration — graduate employees at state and private universities in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

On Monday, the Penn State University Coalition of Graduate Employees will hold its second Labor Day picnic to celebrate its ongoing campaign to form a union.

Since officially kicking off their unionization campaign with the Pennsylvania State Education Association-NEA last February, members of the PSU CGE have spent hundreds of hours canvassing the campus to spread the word about their campaign.

Their message has resonated with graduate employees in every department and college. As of last week, the CGE has collected more than 1,100 authorization cards that will be used to file for a union election with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

By state law, the CGE must collect authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the potential organization to get an election set. It is estimated that there are about 3,500 graduate employees who work as research and teaching assistants at the main and branch campuses.

Even though the PSU CGE could file for an election now, it is continuing to collect cards to make sure that more graduate employees are on board with the union concept. The group anticipates filing for an election before the end of the fall semester.

The CGE campaign has also received support from university professors and other Penn State employees.

In August, CGE leaders met with Penn State President Eric Barron and other administrators to discuss their campaign and their concerns. CGE leaders said while the administration did not agree to a letter of non-interference with the campaign, they did listen to their concerns.

CGE leaders say their campaign is winning support because graduate employees recognize the need to have a formal and official voice when the administration is making decisions that impact their careers and personal lives.

Areas of concern for graduate employees include low stipends, and changes to benefits that are often made without their input.

According to Living Wage Calculator put out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 50 percent of all Penn State graduate employees are not making what is defined as a living wage for Centre County ($21,936 for an individual).

Although recent numbers have not been made available, the 2013-2014 median stipend for Penn State graduate employees at University Park is $18,500 for 10 months.

Another area of concern is the amount of work that is expected of graduate employees for the low pay. Graduate employees are supposed to work 20 hours a week, but according to an unofficial survey done by the CGE, a majority of graduate employees reported that they work many more hours than 20 a week.

Many graduate employees reported in the survey that they are expected to work upward of 40 or 50 hours a week on their assistantships and several reported that working any less would lead to disciplinary action.

This Labor Day is especially a time to celebrate following a decision last month by the National Labor Relations Board that restored the rights to graduate employees at private universities to unionize.

Since the NLRB decision, graduate employees at many private universities, including Duke, Northwestern, St. Louis University and American University have kicked off organizing campaigns. There are already campaigns underway at University of Pittsburgh, Purdue, Columbia, New York University, Yale and Harvard.

Union organizing among university graduate employees is on the rise nationally. There are 32 university graduate employees’ unions already formed in the U.S., and another 18 university graduate employees are in the process of unionizing.

Six of the Big Ten Conference’s 14 universities already have graduate employee unions.

The PSU CGE is optimistic that on Labor Day 2017 the organization will be celebrating its solidarity as a recognized union.

Spencer Carran and Cassie McMillan are co-presidents of PSU Coalition of Graduate Employees.