Frequently Asked Questions about Graduate Student Unionization

To the Penn Community:

We are extremely proud of our graduate students and the new programs and vibrant intellectual life that they create on campus. We view graduate students as our students, mentees, and future colleagues rather than our employees. And we continue to believe that we can better support our graduate students and their educational experience without the intervention of a union.

We have worked hard over many years to consistently improve the graduate student experience. We are committed to advancing these efforts and believe that we can do so most effectively by directly supporting the initiatives of graduate students and advising their elected leadership. These initiatives are explained in detail on the University’s dedicated website for graduate students.

The University has prepared the responses below to answer some of the questions that members of the University community may have about graduate student unionization. Good information and free and open discussion are the foundation for positive relationships and sound decision-making. The University is committed to engaging in that discussion.


Vincent Price, Provost                                  

Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education


For more information on Penn’s support for its graduate students, please visit:

What financial support does Penn currently provide to its graduate students?

The University of Pennsylvania has continually increased its financial support for graduate students to attract the best graduate students from around the world. Penn provides guaranteed funding to PhD students for four to five years or more and has established a variety of opportunities for students to obtain additional funding. Internal funding opportunities include travel grants, the GAPSA-Provost Award for Interdisciplinary Innovation, the President Gutmann Leadership Award, school-based dissertation completion fellowships and more. Furthermore, PhD students can receive guidance in applying for external funding through the Navigating the Grant Program, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and Career Services.

A typical incoming PhD student in the School of Arts and Sciences, which is home to the majority of our PhD students, receives a five-year graduate aid package that includes tuition, general fees, health insurance premiums, and an academic year stipend, plus three years of summer support, worth approximately $69,400 in the first year, or a total of over $347,092 in constant FY17 dollars.

What other services and resources does Penn provide to its graduate students?

Working with graduate student groups on campus, especially the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), Penn has greatly enhanced services and resources available to graduate students. These include comprehensive resource centers, such as the Graduate Student Center, Center for Teaching & Learning, Career Services, and Family Resource Center. Additionally, improvements to PhD educational policies across the Graduate Groups – such as annual progress reports and meetings of dissertation committees – are designed to make the PhD process more transparent and give our PhD students more support to progress academically and ensure timely completion.

Penn also provides a benefits-rich health insurance package to funded students, much of which has been added due to student representation on SHIAC (Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee), which annually reviews and renews the insurance plan. Over the years, this comprehensive coverage has grown to include an unlimited lifetime maximum benefit, prescription coverage, treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, comprehensive infertility coverage, and gender confirmation surgery. Beginning in the fall of 2017, the University will subsidize 50% of the cost of Penn dental insurance for all full-time PhD students as part of their funding package.

Penn is also committed to helping PhD students with children continue in the academic pipeline. The Family Grant Program was established in 2011 and provides need-based grants for PhD students to help cover expenses related to raising children, in addition to subsidized emergency backup care, free memberships, and childbirth/adoption accommodation for PhD students with children.

Two other new initiatives supporting our graduate students will take effect in fall 2017. First, all full-time graduate and professional students will have access to the Pottruck Health & Fitness Center, Sheerr Pool, and Fox Fitness Center covered by their general fee. Part-time students, who pay a reduced fee, will have the option to purchase access to these recreational facilities at a reduced cost. Second, Penn will commit $1 million for need-based grants to PhD students in good standing to help defray the costs of extended health insurance, as well as dependent insurance and daycare for PhD students with spouses and children.


What is the significance of a unionization campaign and election?

If a union wins an election, it becomes the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all employees in the bargaining unit. The employer, in this case Penn, would then negotiate the terms and conditions of employment with the union’s officers and agents, rather than with any individuals. Individual students in the unit would be bound by the outcome of the negotiations, regardless of whether they participated or their interests were otherwise represented in the negotiations.

Who would be included in a collective bargaining unit?

This would be decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in response to the unit proposed by the prospective union. The definition of the unit would determine those students eligible to vote, as well as those students who would be covered by the collective bargaining agreement in the event the union wins an election.

What are the issues that would be covered in negotiations?

The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” Thus collective bargaining negotiations would likely cover the terms and conditions of graduate students’ teaching and research performed under the direct supervision of faculty members or research in faculty members’ laboratories. Although academic decision-making (including decisions about academic progress, mentoring, etc.) should fall outside the scope of collective bargaining, it could be affected by rules sought by the union in collective bargaining.

How are student interests represented in these negotiations? Do students get input into what they believe are the important problems and issues to be addressed? Who will run the union?

All of this is up to the union.

What would a union do for me as a graduate student?

The answer is unclear and depends on the outcome of collective bargaining. Although collective bargaining usually results in a contract, there are times when the parties are unable to reach agreement. Here in Philadelphia, for example, public school teachers have been without a contract for more than three years, as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers rejected the city’s most recent offer in November.

Moreover, although federal labor law requires the parties to bargain in good faith, it does not require either party to agree to any proposal put forward by the other. Thus there is no guarantee that collective bargaining would result in any increase to stipends or benefits. In fact, students could be worse off in the long run under collective bargaining. A typical collective bargaining agreement results in a wage increase of two to three percent per year. This is considerably less than the average increase to stipends the University has implemented on its own, without collective bargaining – and that shortfall does not take into account the cost of union dues to be paid by students, which would further reduce real income.

Do all the employees in a bargaining unit have to pay membership dues to the union?

Yes. Under federal law, a union can require everyone in a bargaining unit to pay dues or to pay the union a similar agency or representation fee (an amount typically only slightly less than the dues). These dues are automatically deducted from employees’ paychecks in almost all cases.

How much would dues be?

The union decides how much to charge its members. Union dues are often set as a certain percent of the annual pay (or stipend) that the bargaining unit member is earning; in other cases, union dues are a flat annual rate. On top of dues, sometimes unions also require bargaining unit members to pay an initiation fee. Some union contracts provide that failure to pay union dues could result in dismissal from employment.

At Cornell, a group of students opposed to unionization estimated that AFT union dues for each student “might range anywhere from $600 to $800 yearly,” based on dues charged by the local AFT union at Rutgers University (see In addition, some AFT affiliates require members to pay extra dues to have voting rights.

At NYU, according to the union’s web site, dues are 2% of compensation during the semesters in which a graduate assistant is employed in a union position, and dues are deducted from every paycheck. In addition to the dues, there is an initiation fee of approximately $50.

A union would not begin to collect dues until the union and Penn agree on a contract. But once a contract is in place, all students would pay dues or a similar fee.

All of the money withheld from student stipends and paid to the union is transferred off campus to a third party. It is money lost to the University community, which might otherwise be available for initiatives related to scholarship, research, student support, or academic programming here at Penn.

What might a union prevent me from doing?

This would depend on the collective bargaining agreement and any bylaws or rules adopted by the union and applied to its members. However, based on what has happened at other institutions, it is likely that a collective bargaining agreement would impose seniority and unit work rules in place of faculty-student consultation in determining teaching and research assignments. A glimpse of this sort of approach can be seen in grievances filed by the United Auto Workers on behalf of graduate students at NYU: Such rules and restrictions might prevent individual students and faculty members from collaboratively deciding on student teaching opportunities. For example, if an individual graduate student wanted to teach in a particular semester in order to schedule around a research opportunity, the department might not be able to accommodate that student’s request under the contract.

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I offer my support?

No, because there is no such contract to show. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions of employment occur only after an election, if the vote is in favor of union representation.

If I object to a specific provision in a signed labor contract, am I still bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining does not allow individual bargaining unit members to opt out of specific rules. A union, as the exclusive bargaining agent, speaks for all members in the bargaining unit, and the contract is binding on all members.

If Penn wanted to improve a graduate student benefit covered by a collective bargaining agreement, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?

No, not unless the contract granted the University the flexibility to do so, or if the union consented to the change. For example, when NYU increased stipends and partially subsidized the cost of health insurance for doctoral students, the union charged the university with an unfair labor practice for doing so without the union’s prior consent.

How would unionization affect faculty-student relationships?

The General Counsel of the NLRB has taken the position that faculty members are “supervisors” acting on behalf of their employer with respect to their relationship with teaching assistants. As a result, with a contract in place, faculty members would become bound by the same labor law that constrains managers in an assembly plant supervising unionized workers. This change could potentially damage the collegial relationship between students and mentors.

If there were a union, what would happen to GAPSA and to University committees that include graduate student representation?

Committees that decide issues affecting “terms and conditions of employment” of graduate students would no longer be permitted to address those issues, as the union would be the exclusive bargaining representative. GAPSA, for example, would not be permitted to negotiate terms or conditions of employment, e.g., pay rates, because under federal law the union would be the exclusive bargaining representative.

Graduate students face significant financial burdens. Won’t we be better off with a union?

Not necessarily. Penn recognizes that for many graduate students it is hard to make ends meet and is continually enhancing funding and benefits packages, as described above. There is no guarantee that collective bargaining will result in increases to stipends or benefits. The only thing assured under unionization is that, with a contract in place, bargaining unit members will pay union dues, which the union will control.

Students advocating for unionization claim that Penn has not established adequate procedures to address sexual harassment and discrimination, or accommodations. Is this correct?

The University has long-standing, established, and effective policies designed to investigate, remediate, and eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination (, as well as sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking ( The Penn Violence Prevention website has detailed information regarding the policies, procedures and resources available to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence ( The University’s Office of Affirmative Action has published a sexual harassment guide, which is available online here: The University also has established student grievance procedures for addressing race and gender discrimination claims, which are outlined here: There are many confidential resource offices on campus that provide options counseling and assist students with initiating a formal complaint, including the Special Services Unit in the Division of Public Safety, the Penn Women’s Center, the African American Resources Center, the LGBT Center, CAPS, and the Office of the Chaplain, among others, which are available to all students.

The University’s Office of Student Disabilities Services provides resources to all students, including graduate students, with requests for accommodations:

Would a union benefit international students?

Penn recognizes that international students face additional challenges, with respect to immigration law and other matters. The Office of International Scholar and Student Services is trained to provide support to Penn’s international students and is available for consultations at any time.

Is there an alternative to unionization?

Yes. The significant advancements in graduate student life at Penn over the last two decades have been made in partnership with GAPSA, SHIAC, and other student groups and University and School committees with student leaders as members. Students who wish to join the discussion regarding graduate student life at Penn are strongly encouraged to become active in GAPSA, their School-based student governments, and/or University-wide interest groups (a list of which is available at and to speak to staff at the Graduate Student Center about issues of concern to them. These organizations have been very influential in improving the lives of graduate students and the campus resources available to them.


How does an election work? Who is eligible to vote? When would it be held?

If a prospective union files a petition, the NLRB will schedule and oversee the election, after resolving any legal issues presented by the petition, which might include questions regarding the scope of the bargaining unit, students’ eligibility to vote, and related matters.

I’m an international student. Will I be eligible to vote?

Yes, you are eligible to vote. Citizenship or visa status is not an eligibility criterion.

Who should vote?

Every eligible student should vote. The election is determined by the majority of the votes actually cast. It is therefore possible for a union to be elected by less than a majority of the individuals in the bargaining unit. According to the NLRB, you will be deemed to consent to the outcome regardless of whether you vote in the election. If you do not vote, and the union wins, it would still become your exclusive collective bargaining representative.

What has happened at other schools?

Since August 2016, elections have been held at Harvard, Duke, Columbia, Yale, and Cornell. At Duke, the union withdrew its petition to represent graduate students after a preliminary ballot count showed a majority voted against the union. At Harvard and Cornell, preliminary counts indicate that a majority voted against the union. At Columbia, students voted in favor of a union. At Yale, students in six departments voted in favor of forming unions, while students in another department did not, and in two departments, the final count is not yet determined, as of March 20, 2017.


The following links offer additional viewpoints on graduate student unionization.

See what Penn graduate students who oppose unionization are saying:

The University of Chicago’s legal office summarized the effects unionization might have on academic practice there:

Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead offered his perspective on graduate student unionization, before the union withdrew its petition at Duke:

A group of Cornell students estimated AFT dues based on information from Rutgers AAUP-AFT:

The Harvard Crimson reported on two Harvard deans’ emails to students regarding unionization, as well as a union organizer’s response:

A Harvard graduate student’s blog, including his arguments against unionization:

A website maintained by Princeton graduate students addressing issues related to potential unionization:

An editorial written by Duke Engineering faculty expressing concerns about graduate student unionization: