Frequently Asked Questions About Unionization

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. The decision about whether or not to form a union is a matter of great significance, and we believe it is critical that our students have all the information they need to become fully educated on the issues raised. As an educational institution, we strongly encourage careful consideration of a range of views. The University is committed to providing complete information and its perspective in an accessible and respectful way. 







Commitment to Graduate Student Support at Penn

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

The University of Pennsylvania has continually increased financial support for graduate students to attract the best graduate students from around the world, including raising the minimum stipend to $38,000 beginning in Fall 2023, a significant increase from $30,547 in the previous academic year. Penn provides guaranteed funding to Ph.D. students for four to five years or more, and has established a variety of opportunities for students to obtain additional funding.

The graduate aid package that Ph.D. students receive each year includes more than just a stipend. Rather, it includes tuition, general fees, health insurance premiums as well as an academic stipend. For the current academic year, the total value of this package is $78,738 for students receiving the minimum stipend. Next academic year, the total value of this package will be $88,244, when the minimum stipend increases to $38,000. And this amount is guaranteed each year for either four or five years, depending on the program’s design. Additionally:

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

Working with graduate student groups on campus, including the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), Penn has greatly enhanced services and resources available to our graduate students. These include comprehensive resource centers, such as the Graduate Student Center, Center for Teaching & Learning, Career Services and Family Resource Center. Penn also offers robust support programs for student parents, including subsidized backup care and free Sittercity memberships. For more information about graduate support programs, please visit our dedicated website for graduate students.

What opportunities do graduate students currently have to make their voices heard?

Graduate students have representation on nearly every standing University and Trustee committee, as well as ad hoc committees. GAPSA is responsible for appointing graduate and professional students to committees.

University Committees

  • Consultative Committee to advise the Executive Committee of the Trustees on the selection of the President (1 seat)
  • University Council Steering Committee (2 Seats) 
  • University Council (15 Seats)
  • Committee on Academic & Related Affairs (2 Seats) 
  • The Provost’s Academic Planning and Budget Committee (2 seats)
  • Campus and Community Life (2 Seats)
  • Committee on Committees (1 Seat) 
  • Committee on Diversity & Equity (2 Seats)
  • Committee on Facilities (2 Seats)
  • Independent Committee on Honorary Degrees (2 Seats)
  • Independent Committee on Open Expression (3 Seats)
  • Social Responsibility Advisory Committee (2 Seats)
  • Committee on Manufacturer Responsibility (1 Seat)
  • Committee on Academic Planning and Budget (2 Seats)
  • Graduate Council of the Faculties (3 Seats)
  • Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (10 Seats)

Trustees’ Committees

  • Trustees’ Academic Policy Committee (1 Seat)
  • Trustees’ Budget and Finance Committee (1 Seat)
  • Trustees’ Local, National, and Global Engagement Committee (1 Seat)
  • Trustees’ Facilities and Campus Planning Committee (1 Seat)
  • Trustees’ Student Life Committee (1 Seat)

How does Penn support international graduate students?

Penn recognizes that international students face additional challenges. The Office of International Scholar and Student Services provides significant support to Penn’s international students, not only with respect to immigration services but also with respect to integrating international students into the University community. ISSS is available for consultations at any time.

For new international students, ISSS ensures timely issuance of immigration documents, checks in with students upon their arrival to campus, and activates their SEVIS record. International students enjoy support from ISSS throughout their time at Penn with respect to needs such as obtaining a Social Security Number and Driver’s License; challenges like visa delays or denials, or reinstatement needs due to accidentally falling out of status; and navigating unique academic or other personal situations like a leave of absence or a reduced course load due to insufficient academic progress. ISSS also provides work authorization to international students when legally permissible, including but not limited to CPT (Curricular Practical Training) and OPT (Optional Practical Training) and hosts special presentations by immigration attorneys regarding immigration options post-graduation.

ISSS is also dedicated to celebrating and including Penn’s diverse international community by developing programming and initiatives that enhance cross-cultural connections and reduce cultural gaps; increase access of campus resources and opportunities for international students; bring to the forefront the strengths of a diverse international student and scholar population; and build intercultural initiatives that grow Penn as an inclusive community. ISSS does this not only by hosting various events but also by partnering with Penn’s graduate and professional schools as well as with the Graduate Student Center, Family Resource Center, Department of Public Safety, Off-Campus Housing, Wellness, Career Services, Weingarten Center, and LGBT Center. ISSS also works closely with GAPSA and its International Student Affairs committee, with the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) and with the International Student Table for Advocacy & Relations (ISTAR) to support all aspects of international student integration at Penn.

What policies and procedures does Penn currently have in place to address sexual harassment and discrimination? What about accommodations?

The University is committed to ensuring that all students are able to learn in an environment free of sexual misconduct, and the University regularly reviews its policies, practices and resources to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the community. The University has established a comprehensive Sexual Misconduct Policy, which covers sexual harassment, sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking. Students wishing to report an issue or complaint related to sexual misconduct can contact the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer. The Penn Violence Prevention website has detailed information regarding the policies, procedures and resources available to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence.

To address matters of race and gender discrimination, the University has established student grievance procedures which are outlined here. Penn has 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.

Students can report non-emergency incidents of bias or discrimination involving Penn students, faculty or staff, using the Bias Incident Reporting Form. The Graduate Group Review Student Feedback Form is anonymous and intended to solicit general feedback and impressions about students’ graduate school experiences.

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

Sources of Graduate Student Support 

Where does the money for PhD stipends come from?

Funding for PhD stipends comes from a variety of sources and varies from graduate program to graduate program. Most students are supported with University funding. The Provost’s Office provides funds annually to the 9 PhD-granting schools to subsidize the cost of PhD stipends. These schools also contribute additional funds which can increase the stipend amount and/or number of PhD students supported.

Some students are supported by external grants that they have been awarded, and in other situations students are supported by external grants awarded to their principal investigator (PI). In STEM fields, it is common for students to be supported by University funding in their first 1-2 years and then by a combination of funding sources in later years, with PI funds making up a substantial portion of student funding. When contemplating an increase to PhD stipends, the University and each school have to factor in how such increases will impact the ability of PIs to cover their students' stipends and research costs with grant funds.

Why can’t the University use endowment money to increase the amount it gives schools for PhD stipends?

The endowment is not a single discretionary fund; it is made up of approximately 8,400 individual funds, each with a particular purpose. Donors give money to support their philanthropic interests, such as professorships, financial aid, or specific academic programs. These gifts are legally restricted, meaning they can be used only for their designated purpose. 

Why can’t the Schools increase the amount they contribute for PhD stipends?

Schools at Penn have a limited number of ways they earn revenue; primarily revenue is secured from tuition, external grants, and donations. Schools use revenue dollars to support their operations, including facilities, financial aid, faculty and staff compensation, and graduate student support, including stipends, etc. While PhD stipends are a very important component of each school’s programmatic investment, schools have many demands on their revenue. 

Union Election Process

How does an election work? When would it be held?

Once a union files a petition, the NLRB will schedule and oversee the election process. The election takes place 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.

Who is eligible to vote?

The NLRB will determine the appropriate bargaining unit which will identify those who are eligible to vote.

I’m an international student. Am I eligible to vote?

Yes, international students who are part of the bargaining unit are eligible to vote. Citizenship or visa status are not eligibility criterion.

Who should vote?

Every eligible student should vote. Like any election, voting is your opportunity to have your voice heard. Like all elections, the outcome of a union election is determined by the majority of the votes cast. In other words, it is possible for a union to be elected by less than a majority of the total individuals in the bargaining unit, as long as the majority of those who participated in the election voted in favor of the union.

Will my vote be public knowledge?

No. NLRB elections are conducted by secret ballot.

If I don’t vote, am I still subject to the terms of the union contract?

Yes. Union contracts cover everyone in the bargaining unit, even if you did not vote, voted against the union or object to the terms the union negotiates. You would still be represented by the union, bound by the union contract and subject to union dues or fees.

If a union is elected and is not successful in negotiating an agreement, can’t students simply dissolve it?

It is not easy to dissolve a union under federal law. Similar to forming a union, there is a formal process, called decertification, to remove or replace a union. To decertify a union, students must first collect signatures from at least 30 percent of bargaining unit members. Once the petition is filed, a decertification election is held, the outcome of which is determined by majority vote. The NLRB has guidelines in place for when this type of election can happen. Decertification elections are not allowed for one year following the union’s NLRB certification. Additionally, once a collective bargaining agreement has been reached, students cannot petition for a decertification election during the first three years of the agreement, except for during the 30-day “window period” (60-90 days prior to the end of the contract).

Is there an alternative to unionization?

Yes. Penn has made significant advancements in graduate student life over the last two decades 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. We also encourage students 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.

What Happens After a Union Election

What is the significance of a unionization election?

If the union wins the election, it becomes the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all persons in the unit, for items that fall within the union’s purview. The employer—in this case Penn—would negotiate with the union’s representatives to determine the terms and conditions of employment for all students within the bargaining unit. Once a collective bargaining agreement has been reached, all students in the bargaining unit are bound by the outcome of the negotiations, regardless of whether they participated in the election, or whether their individual interests were represented in the negotiations.

Who would be included in a collective bargaining unit?

The scope of the bargaining unit is decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in response to the unit proposed by the union.

What are the issues that would be covered in negotiations?

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employers and unions to bargain over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” There is no obligation to bargain over anything beyond these items, despite what a union may promise.

Collective bargaining negotiations would likely cover the terms and conditions of teaching and research performed by graduate students under the direct supervision of faculty members or research in faculty members’ laboratories. Contract rules regarding teaching and research assignments could significantly restrict the flexibility that graduate students currently enjoy with respect to such assignments based on their interests, merit or informal arrangements, and any deviation from the contract’s rules could result in a grievance filed by the union, even if the deviation is in the graduate student’s best interest.

How are student interests represented in these negotiations? Who will run the union?

Union officers typically are elected by members of the bargaining unit to represent collective student interests. Individual student interests are not necessarily represented in negotiations.

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 contract in place prior to the election. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions of employment occur only after an election, if the vote is in favor of union representation. The union’s platform and priorities are not guaranteed. 

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 members of the bargaining unit to opt out of specific rules. A union, as the exclusive bargaining agent, speaks for all members in the bargaining unit on matters within its purview, and the contract is binding on all members.

Would a union give students the right to negotiate with Penn over how the institution is run?

No. Mandatory subjects of collective bargaining comprise only “terms and conditions of employment,” which typically include wages and benefits, discipline and discharge, and a grievance procedure. Academic policies, institutional priorities and objectives, and programs are not included in these mandatory subjects of bargaining.

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.

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

The answer depends on the outcome of collective bargaining. Although collective bargaining usually results in a contract, it can take a long time for this to happen. Federal labor law requires parties to bargain in good faith, but it does not require the parties to reach an agreement, and there is no timeframe for doing so. There is so much that we have done together through collaboration and cooperation and without a union, including increasing the minimum stipend by an average of 3.7 percent per year since 2005, with higher increases over the past four years (4 percent or more) and an increase to $38,000 (up from $30,547 for an overall increase of $7,453), announced for the 2023-24 academic year.

What might a union prevent me from doing?

This depends on the collective bargaining agreement and any bylaws or rules adopted by the union and applied to its members. Some UAW agreements require the filing of a grievance to resolve student research or teaching concerns. Grievance procedures not only take time but also could necessitate the sharing of sensitive information with third parties. Requiring resolution through a grievance procedure may prevent students from obtaining a timely resolution that respects their privacy interests. 

Union Dues

Do all members of a bargaining unit have to pay membership dues to the union?

Under federal law, a union can require everyone in a bargaining unit to pay dues or a fee (in an amount typically only slightly less than full membership dues). In most cases, dues and fees are mandatory and automatically deducted from paychecks. Students may also be required to pay a one-time initiation fee to the union.

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 receives; in other cases, union dues are a flat annual rate. Graduate student unions post information on their websites regarding union dues. Below are dues percentages at peer institutions with unions in place.

Union Dues – Percentages

Estimated Annual Cost*

1.44 percent (Harvard and Columbia)


1.65 percent (Brown)


1.75 percent (Georgetown)


2 percent (NYU)


*Assumes a $38,000 stipend; actual costs will depend on the dues amount set by the union, and your stipend. 

All dues and fees withheld from students’ stipends and paid to a union are transferred off campus to a third party – the union.

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

Not necessarily. There is no guarantee that collective bargaining will result in increases to stipends or other benefits. The only thing assured under unionization is that parties will be required to negotiate in good faith and, once there is a contract in place, bargaining unit members will be required to pay union dues (or in the alternative, a fee), which the union will determine.

How Unionization Might Impact Existing Relationships

How would unionization affect faculty-student relationships?

The NLRB considers faculty members to be “supervisors” acting on behalf of an employer (the University) 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 laws that constrain managers in any union shop 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 currently 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 for matters covered by the contract. For example, GAPSA may not be permitted to confer with Penn on benefits or resources if the union is the exclusive bargaining representative for those items.

I am accustomed to graduate students and groups like GAPSA that represent graduate students engaging directly with Penn in a collaborative and cooperative way to address concerns and to plan for the future. How will collective bargaining affect that?

Collective bargaining would be a fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship between Penn and its graduate students from one of direct engagement that is both collaborative and cooperative to one involving indirect engagement through the union with respect to those subjects under the union’s purview.  While there has always been direct engagement between Penn and its graduate students on matters of importance, such as stipends and benefits, during the collective bargaining process Penn will be required to bargain only with the union on these types of matters.  While negotiations are ongoing, Penn is not permitted to make any changes to stipends, benefits or any other conditions of employment without union agreement, even if both Penn and graduate students desire the changes.