Exactly one year ago, in its Columbia University decision, the National Labor Relations Board reconciled a decades-long inconsistency in employment law: It recognized that teaching, research and other academic labor done by graduate students at private universities is in fact work. The very same labor at public institutions has been “work” since 1969. This legal recognition extends the right to negotiate with the University administration to graduate students at Penn, ensuring that we have a voice in our working conditions. It is the intention of Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) to secure that right, just as many public universities’ graduate student bodies have before us — by organizing as a labor union of graduate student workers and receiving formal recognition from the university.
Initially, I joined GET-UP because I was compelled by the ideas of democracy and fair representation on campus, as well as the principle that graduate students should be afforded an unbiased procedure to address grievances without fear of repercussion. After almost a year of conversations with my peers, those principles remain steadfast, yet the campaign is no longer abstract to me but instead is driven by the real experiences of many graduate workers.
I know of women harassed by male faculty members, advisors “strongly suggesting” that their students avoid getting married or having children and administrators ignoring the serious work of student advocacy groups. I know graduate students who work with dangerous chemicals yet are not insured by workers’ compensation, graduate students who have encountered inadequate mental health resources at extremely difficult times in their lives and graduate students struggling to financially support themselves and their families. These are stories that Penn omits from its orientation materials and program literature; many of these stories end with the student feeling there is no other option but to leave the program. It does not have to be that way.
Penn’s campus is also home to many hopeful voices, those who have a vision for Penn’s future that is based in collective determination and shared values. Many of my peers have worked tirelessly to pursue this vision, and GET-UP seeks to amplify these efforts through the pursuit of a collective bargaining agreement, a vehicle for institutional accountability. The Columbia decision allows us to bargain for a contract with our employer, but our union is more than that. We have a vision for a more ethical, collaborative and accountable university, and through our campaign we are working to secure those principles for all graduate workers, and for the rest of the community.
Graduate school will always have its difficulties — there will be months of troubleshooting experiments and ideas that fall flat. There will be challenging questions from students and many-paged essays to grade. As a scientist, I anticipate complications, late nights in lab and repeated failures that I will sometimes make the mistake of taking personally. But entering graduate work at one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the world should not mean isolation or austerity. Through GET-UP, I am working to foster a community of workers who have one another’s backs, through the challenges and the triumphs of grad school.
Penn should also have our backs, affording us a seat at the table and a say in our working conditions. Many of you reading this have been taught by a graduate student. Many others of you have benefited from research done or supported by graduate student work — whether in biomedical science, social policy or mathematics. Yet, as another school year begins, we face the disheartening reality that the institution of which we are an essential part will not respect our voices and rights.
The Penn administration has instead questioned the value of our work and stalled the union recognition process, with thinly veiled hopes that the Trump administration, in appointing new members to the NLRB, will strip us of that right for the foreseeable future. Right now, we are experiencing a political environment that shocks and unsettles us daily. In an increasingly cutthroat, byzantine academia, we shouldn’t be left to wonder whether patterns of discrimination and other issues in academic labor are being taken seriously.
We implore the administration of the University of Pennsylvania to recognize our work and rights; we even invite them to celebrate with GET-UP as we stand at the forefront of a national movement for workplace democracy and worker empowerment.
OLIVIA HARDING is a 2nd year cell and molecular biology Ph.D. student in the Perelman School of Medicine. She is a member of GET-UP.
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