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.
Wendell Pritchett, Provost
Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education
GET-UP recently submitted a petition to form a union and hold an election. What is the next step in the process?
We describe the process below and, more importantly, urge you to keep yourself informed and vote if an election is scheduled. Your vote on this important issue matters.
Before scheduling an election, the Labor Board holds a hearing, which in this case began on June 14 and ended on June 30. At the hearing, the Board hears evidence and arguments about which students should be included in a potential union as well as which students should be eligible to vote.
The University opened the hearing with evidence demonstrating its longstanding commitment to graduate education, as well as how teaching and research are essential parts of Penn’s mission to educate the next generation of leaders at schools around the world. The University devotes enormous resources to graduate students, including not only tuition remission and competitive stipends for funded students but also outstanding medical benefits (with lower costs than Penn's employee plans, plus access to Student Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services) and a wide array of programming focusing on mentorship and wellness.
Much of the hearing has been devoted to determining the proper scope of any bargaining unit. The unit proposed by GET-UP would include students from the natural sciences (e.g., Biology, Chemistry, and Physics & Astronomy) in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as students in Biomedical Graduate Studies, but not students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science or the Wharton School. GET-UP has conceded that it chose this structure only because it would increase its likelihood of winning an election. In response, the University has presented evidence demonstrating that the proposed structure is inconsistent with Penn’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education, in which, for example, students in the Chemistry Graduate Group are more likely to study and conduct research alongside students in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering than with students in History or English.
Finally, the University is concerned that the date and form of the election GET-UP proposed – a mail ballot in the summer – would lead to the disenfranchisement of hundreds, if not thousands, of interested and affected students. Penn is arguing strongly for the election to take place in the fall, after students have returned to campus and are fully engaged in their studies.
After the hearing ends, the Board may schedule an election or the issues surrounding the proper scope of the unit and voter eligibility may require further review. Please watch this page closely for updates and remember that, if an election is scheduled, it will be decided by a majority of the votes actually cast – which makes it critical that every eligible student think carefully about her or his choice and participate in the election.
I signed an authorization card, but now I’ve changed my mind. How can I revoke my authorization?
If you signed a card authorizing GET-UP to petition for an election but have changed your mind or are uncertain about your support, you may revoke your authorization card by sending GET-UP a letter or email. The letter or message should specify that you are withdrawing your authorization. You should keep a copy for your records. GET-UP’s address is set forth below.
Graduate Employees Together
University of Pennsylvania
4305 Locust St.
Philadelphia, PA 19144
You should also send a copy of your revocation to the National Labor Relations Board:
National Labor Relations Board
615 Chestnut St. Suite 710
Philadelphia, PA 19106-4413
Re: Case 04-RC-199609
How will the election work? Who is eligible to vote? When would it be held?
The union is seeking to conduct a mail-ballot election over the summer, when the University is not in regular session. The University opposes this measure as it believes a mail-ballot election taking place during the summer months could effectively result in a number of students being denied the opportunity to vote. The decision as to when to hold an election, and by what method, will be made by the National Labor Relations Board. We will update this page with further information once it becomes available.
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 Labor Board, 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.
Will other students know how I vote?
No. The election is by secret ballot and your vote is strictly confidential. No one will know if you vote yes or no to the union.
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 will be decided by the Labor Board. The Board’s definition of the unit will determine who is 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. 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 http://atwhatcost.org/2016/10/24/230). 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.
Whatever the amount, all 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. You can see how this might work in grievances filed by the United Auto Workers on behalf of graduate students at NYU: https://provost.uchicago.edu/initiatives/summary-union-grievances-nyu-and-yale. 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 Labor Board’s General Counsel considers faculty members to be “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?
No. The University has long-standing, established, and effective policies designed to investigate, remediate, and eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination (https://provost.upenn.edu/policies/pennbook/2013/02/15/sexual-harassment-policy), as well as sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking (https://provost.upenn.edu/policies/pennbook/2013/02/15/sexual-violence-relationship-violence-and-stalking-policy). The Penn Violence Prevention website has detailed information regarding the policies, procedures and resources available to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence (https://secure.www.upenn.edu/vpul/pvp/index.php). The University also has established student grievance procedures for addressing race and gender discrimination claims, which are outlined here: http://provost.upenn.edu/policies/pennbook/2013/02/13/student-grievance-procedures.
As set forth in its policies, the University has two types of resources available for students with concerns regarding sexual harassment. There are confidential resource offices on campus that provide information, counseling and support and can assist students considering a formal complaint. These offices include 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, all of which are available to all students. In addition, the University’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs is available to all members of the University community seeking assistance with initiating a complaint.
Students who wish to file a formal complaint directly may do so by submitting the complaint to the dean of the school or the Office of the Provost if the complaint is against a faculty member. If the complaint is against a staff member, it should be made to the supervisor of the person complained against, to the next level supervisor, to Human Resources or to the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs. If the complaint is against a student, the complaint should be made to Office of Student Conduct or, if the complaint relates to a graduate or professional student enrolled in a school which has established a hearing board or other decision-making body, the complaint should be filed with that body. The Office of Student Conduct website has a list of these graduate schools and programs. The University’s Office of Student Disabilities Services also provides resources to all students, including graduate students, with requests for accommodations: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/lrc/sds.
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.
Union organizers have visited me at home. Is this permissible?
Union organizers have the right to solicit your support, but you are not required to speak to them or sign an authorization card. If an organizer enters your personal living space without permission or refuses to leave when asked, you may seek police assistance by calling 911 (or 3-3333 on campus for Penn Public Safety). GET-UP and the Labor Board have required that the University provide the union with contact information for any student within GET-UP’s proposed bargaining unit. The University is taking steps designed to ensure it protects the privacy of student contact information to the maximum extent possible. This page will be updated with further information as it becomes available. If you are concerned about the privacy of your address and phone number, you may check your settings on your personal profile or contact the University Privacy Officer, Scott D. Schafer (email@example.com).
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 http://www.gsc.upenn.edu/resources/gradgroups.php) 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.
For more information on Penn’s support for its graduate students, please visit: http://www.upenn.edu/pages/valuing-grad-students.
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 Care.com 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.
How do graduate students’ medical benefits compare with Penn employee medical benefits provided to faculty and staff?
The Penn Student Insurance Plan (PSIP), for which all graduate students are eligible, offers the highest-quality care at a significantly lower cost than Penn’s employee medical benefits plans available to full-time faculty and staff members. The University provides PSIP medical benefits to funded students at no charge; University faculty and staff pay between $91 and $204 per month for individual coverage (with dependent coverage costing more than twice as much). PSIP’s annual out-of-pocket maximum of $900 also is lower than the out-of-pocket maximum in Penn’s employee plans. These are just some of the features of PSIP coverage. For more information, please visit this site: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/shs/psipinsurance.php
In addition, dental insurance is cheaper for graduate students than employees. University employees participating in Penn’s dental insurance program pay $25-$36 per month, which over the course of a year is more expensive than the subsidized dental coverage now available to graduate students. Finally, graduate students are eligible for free appointments with Student Health Services as well as free sessions with CAPS, which are available on a walk-in basis for students, and are not available to employees at all.
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, but the union has challenged the election results. At Columbia, students voted in favor of a union. At Yale, students petitioned to form multiple “micro-units” covering individual departments, and the outcome is unresolved, as of June 1, 2017.
The following links offer additional viewpoints on graduate student unionization.
See what Penn graduate students who oppose unionization are saying: https://nopennunion.org
The University of Chicago’s legal office summarized the effects unionization might have on academic practice there: https://provost.uchicago.edu/initiatives/summary-union-grievances-nyu-and-yale
Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead offered his perspective on graduate student unionization, before the union withdrew its petition at Duke: https://sites.duke.edu/union/message-from-president-brodhead-on-proposed-graduate-student-union
A group of Cornell students estimated AFT dues based on information from Rutgers AAUP-AFT: http://atwhatcost.org/2016/10/24/230
The Harvard Crimson reported on two Harvard deans’ emails to students regarding unionization, as well as a union organizer’s response: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/11/16/deans-send-emails-before-grad-student-union-vote
A Harvard graduate student’s blog, including his arguments against unionization: https://criticalgsu.wordpress.com/six-arguments
A website maintained by Princeton graduate students addressing issues related to potential unionization: http://www.princetonuic.com
An editorial written by Duke Engineering faculty expressing concerns about graduate student unionization: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/11/engineering-faculty-express-concerns-about-unionization-of-all-graduate-students