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Graduate Student Unionization and CAMB: Perspectives on the Collective Bargaining Movement

May 20, 2017

Since March of this year graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania have come to hear the truth about the state of their work and support. Two truths, really. The first - graduate students can have everything they need. The second - nothing they need is theirs to have. This Dickensian dichotomy becomes apparent as discussion swirls around the question, should “[I] hereby join Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) and authorize GET-UP to represent me for the purposes of collective bargaining with the University of Pennsylvania?” (1)


The ambitious renewal of the Penn graduate student collective bargaining movement officially went public two months ago (2). It has since engendered often-heated discussion of its merits and risks. GET-UP has forced graduate students to examine their level of satisfaction with their compensation and accommodation by the University. Veteran GET-UP member Joe Jordan (BMB) frames the movement as a push on a graduate population that has not dared imagine that it can and should receive significantly more in return for its work. “CAMB is good but could be better; Penn is good but could be better,” he presents as the philosophical basis for his involvement. The central pillar of GET-UP is, “We know we are worth more. Without us, Penn would not run…But without a contract and a platform to negotiate with the administration, we have no voice. GET-UP can provide that voice.” (3) In opposition, the counterarguments against collective bargaining have forced students to examine the uncertainties posed by such a restructuring to their representation, negotiation over benefits, and new obligations to the American Federation of Teachers network that supports the initiative. The other-minded student group GETDN-UPenn summarizes the contra argument as, “We don’t believe a decision to form a union when no complete examples exist where the university recognizes and works with unionized graduate students, and all financial and other issues across all involved departments have been resolved to adequate satisfaction to all parties involved.” (4) Furthermore, the No Penn Union student group argues that “A pan-graduate school union can not accurately represent the needs of all 12 graduate schools. The current proposed union model at Penn could have significant drawbacks with few added benefits.” (5)


Each group has presented a raft of statements in support of their arguments, in addition to town hall meetings with BGSA and GAPSA and even podcast interviews with the Penn Science Policy Group (6). So significant a proposal has also garnered comments from the other interested parties in this discussion. Memoranda from former University Provost Vincent Price emphasize that “we continue to believe that we can better support our graduate students and their educational experience without the intervention of a union.” (7) Faculty members have also voiced their opinions, with some professors in support of collective bargaining penning a letter to the Daily Pennsylvanian. “We believe that unions are a good way to allow any organization, including a university, to best represent itself,” writes Professor Suvir Kaul of the English Department (8). That is not to claim that professors are unanimous in their support. Strong opinions dominate faculty discussions, and ultimately PIs, like their students, predicate their stances on the fundamental uncertainties unleashed: what is to be changed, how is it to happen, and who is to be covered?


Let’s begin with the question of whom. There is a frustrating lack of clarity about the kind of graduate work and benefits that the union would have the authority to negotiate over. The NLRB ruling in 2016 in Trustees of Columbia University vs. Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW expanded the definition of employment to any member of the graduate community that receives payment to advance the ranking, performance, and profit of the institution (9,10).  From this redefinition, graduate students at a handful of private universities, such as Harvard and Columbia, have progressed to holding votes to form unions – with partial success (11). However, those nascent unions have barely entered the negotiation stage. The strongest precedent-holder for collective bargaining at private universities is the Union for Graduate Employees at New York University (GSOC-UAW Local 2110) (12). This agreement, alongside the collective bargaining agreements at public institutions such as the University of Michigan and the UC system, are all being explored by GET-UP as the model for the Penn union. Of note, the public university collective bargaining agreements and the agreement between NYU and GSOC-UAW only explicitly cover the work and rights of teaching assistants, adjunct instructors, social science research assistants, and graduate assistants, with uneven application to graduate student researchers (13-15).  It would fall to negotiation between GET-UP and the University to define the bargaining unit and determine if students’ stipends for their dissertation work would be covered by contract.


To answer what is to be changed, GET-UP has released a list of issues that would be on the bargaining table should their efforts succeed. The group raises legitimate concerns about healthcare coverage, family support, and international student rights, and the disparities in benefits from department to department (16). Student organizations, such as BGSA and GAPSA, also recognize these and other issues and have themselves tried to address them. It must be noted that the question of what issues the union would negotiate over is far from decided. Whereas each student organization has proscribed roles and functions, initial negotiations upon approval and recognition of the union will determine the bounds of which student benefits will be covered by collective bargaining.


This leads to the how of change. Central to the discussion over unionization is the question over the most effective means of achieving these goals. Importantly, neither a group like GAPSA nor a union could ever guarantee or force a policy change. Either would, through contrasting mechanisms, merely communicate students’ needs and desires to the University. “[Unions] make us better able to communicate. I don’t see this as an adversarial relationship as much as a better line of communication, one in which we can all have our give-and-take,” outlines former GAPSA and SASGOV member and current GET-UP organizer Yakov Feygin (SAS) (17). There is, however, no obvious dearth of communication between students and the various echelons of the University administration. “There is no precedent for the University refusing to hear the reasonable requests of the students. [GET-UP] needs to demonstrate that we have a need for a union, and I haven’t seen that,” posits former Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (SHIAC) member and current No Penn Union organizer Laura Bryant (NGG). It is true that the University has been very open to hearing requests. It has in many cases also acted on those requests, such as the School of Medicine’s most recent stipend increase and the one-time moving credit for incoming BGS students. Yet, hearing a request is no guarantee of its acceptance, with outcomes varying widely across the different graduate schools. Recently, the GAPSA Research Council could not come to an agreement with the University to guarantee funding up to the 75th percentile of each school’s average completion time, an accepted practice at Columbia and Yale (18). (BGS is an exception, with guaranteed support up to graduation in the event of the loss of a lab’s funding.) How would unionization alter the mechanisms of student advocacy?


Both student government and GET-UP aim to address graduates’ concerns, through different means. Currently, each graduate group, school, or department has students that present and negotiate over issues with the directors of the programs all the way up to the dean of that school. In the union, the bargaining unit of all students from all graduate schools would collectively reach a consensus and vote on a negotiated contract between the University and the elective bargaining committee, of which any GET-UP member from any graduate program may be a part. In this way, there are two competing models of representation. Whereas each graduate group currently has its own student organization with different levels of efficacy, transparency, and accessibility, union negotiations would proceed with a negotiating committee of volunteers and be approved by simple majority of participating members irrespective of the disparities in size and current benefits of the graduate groups under the union umbrella. The broader AFT network supporting GET-UP would also be present during negotiations (19), although GET-UP is adamant that the union local would remain autonomous from the AFT national. Significantly, every member of GET-UP would have the right to be heard, although no member would have the right to remove themselves from union agreements or obligations. Ultimately, both the current system and the union will rely upon individuals to champion their causes of interest within the framework of these systems. Moreover, the negotiated contracts between the union and the University would not be all-encompassing. These contracts would likely leave open the possibility for questions not explicitly covered by the contract to be answered through existing channels of communication between students and administrators. “We need a union in addition to organizations like GAPSA, BGSA, and SASGOV. Student organizations are funded by the university, and though their members often sit on bodies like the University Council and SHIAC, they simply do not have the tools or leverage to create change there… I view GET-UP as a supplement, not a competitor to, the student government organizations that uses our position as a financially independent body with support from the larger pooled resources of our national,” insists Feygin. Nonetheless, many of the benefits that have been laboriously negotiated by student organizations like BGSA would likely enter under the purview of GET-UP, greatly diminishing the import of the existing student groups. “What is very much clear is the following. Should the students vote to unionize, GAPSA and BGSA would no longer be allowed to represent the students in any discussions with faculty leadership or administration about matters subject to negotiation, including stipend, benefits, or other conditions of their graduate work,” states Daniel Kessler, CAMB Graduate Group Chair.


The bold broad strokes may resonate, but it is in the fine details that we must seek out our answers and be convinced of how we can proceed. Regardless of which arguments ring most true, one thing at least is reassuring. Dr. Kessler emphasizes, “Should the students choose to unionize, we will find a way in accordance with the rules imposed by the collective bargaining process to maintain the quality of the educational programs, the quality of our research, and the quality of life for our students. There is nothing introduced through the process of unionization that will dramatically change the goals and the intentions of the faculty and I believe our students are committed and ambitious to do the best work they can.” And that, we hope, will hold however the vote goes.


For more in-depth discussion, readers are encouraged to continue to ask questions. They are especially recommended to listen to the Penn Science Policy Group podcast, call the local NLRB chapter at 215-597-4310, talk to their BGSA reps about graduate student government advocacy, and attend GET-UP planning committee meetings Thursdays at 6 pm at the GET-UP office at 4305 Locust St.



1. “Constitution of GET-UP”.




5. “What we believe”.




















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