As a graduate student worker at the University of Pennsylvania, I research the politics of emotion as a member of the Political Science Department. I am also a worker; I teach classes, grade papers and meet with students — essential tasks crucial to fulfilling Penn’s academic mission. The law agrees: Last August, the National Labor Relations Board classified graduate students as both students and workers, granting us union organizing rights under federal law. Sadly, the Penn administration seems intent on denying us these rights and, with them, the reality of our academic labor.
Last week, at an official NLRB hearing in downtown Philadelphia, Penn’s lawyers called witnesses to essentially argue that day is night — that the labor we perform for compensation is definitely not work. Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein tied herself in knots to avoid the word “work” when discussing the duties that graduate students perform. Eventually, Winkelstein interrupted the hearing officer’s questions with this blunt statement: “Let me be clear. They do not have jobs. They have intellectual pursuits.”
Why the evasion? The minute Penn admits we are workers as well as students, it will be required to cede a tiny bit of its power to those who perform the labor that keeps the university running. Doing so would also acknowledge the truth the administration’s been denying for decades — that Penn increasingly relies on graduate student workers to function.
Rather than respecting the law and recognizing our right to join a union and negotiate a contract that would benefit all parties, Penn has cynically decided to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers in the hope President Trump will soon appoint conservative members to the NLRB to support its position. Administrators like Winkelstein are lining up to do Penn’s, and Trump’s, bidding.
This is not only wrong on the facts and the law, but also insulting to the graduate researchers and teaching assistants who toil for long hours in labs and classrooms. Yes, I have an intellectual pursuit: Right now, it’s my dissertation. However, in addition to that, throughout my tenure at Penn, I’ve worked — just like most of my colleagues.
To be clear, I love the work of teaching. I cherish the experience of guiding undergraduates through a close reading of Plato’s "The Republic" for the first time, or helping them uncover the main points of De Beauvoir’s "The Second Sex" amid her winding logic and eloquent prose. However, no matter how enjoyable I find this endeavor, teaching is still work. I am employed by the University to perform a job. To this end, I attend lectures, hold office hours, teach recitations and grade assignments.
If graduate employees decided en masse to only focus on our intellectual pursuits, the productivity of the University would grind to a halt. Maybe then Penn would be forced to recognize the crucial contributions we all make, and the complicated relationship that exists between our intellectual pursuits and the work we perform. One thing would be very clear: Our work makes Penn work.
A graduate union will give us a voice in determining our working conditions. We believe that improving funding and job security, increasing family and dependent support and developing a fair grievance procedure will make Penn a better place, and will improve the quality of the work we do and the University as a whole. Further, we firmly believe that addressing these issues through collective bargaining will make Penn more transparent, more accountable and more democratic, which will benefit the entire Penn community.
Penn claims to value its graduate students. However, only by recognizing the value we provide for the University through our work, can Penn make this true. Instead of trying to thwart the progress of our petition, Penn can demonstrate that it values its graduate student workers by recognizing that we are just that — both students and workers — and letting the democratic process run its course.
DANIELLE HANLEY is a 5th year graduate student worker at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of GET-UP.
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