Over 1,000 Penn graduate students have been campaigning for a labor union since March, and they're still facing stumbling blocks.
The pro-union group, Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, hoped to vote on the union’s establishment this summer after they brought their group’s petition with the required signatures to the National Labor Relations Board on May 30.
To form a labor union, the interested group must present the NLRB with signatures from 30 percent of those who they think the union will protect. The NLRB then facilitates a simple majority vote to decide on whether the union will be established.
But the election has been delayed because the University took GET-UP to court for three weeks in June to discuss the details of the vote.
GET-UP has also seen internal backlash from groups of Penn graduate students opposed to their movement, and the current political climate poses threats to the group’s fight to unionize as well.
Until the NLRB releases its verdict, the students at GET-UP will continue to wait.
Graduate School of Education Ph.D student and GET-UP member Miranda Weinberg said although the hearing was supposed to be about the election, the administration repeatedly returned to the question of whether graduate students are union-deserving workers at all.
“It was surprising and disappointing to hear these leaders of our community devaluing the work that graduate students and workers do,” Weinberg said.
School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D student and GET-UP member Zach Smith said he believes Penn opted for the hearing for another reason: graduate students’ right to unionize is volatile under President Donald Trump.
Last summer, the federal NLRB ruled that private universities’ graduate students are workers entitled to labor unions. However, the five-member federal NLRB currently has two vacancies.
Trump has made two conservative, pro-employer selections to fill the spots, and the New York Daily News reported they just need to win a Senate majority vote to take office. If this happens, the board’s balance will return to Republican, and the members will likely reset the union precedent. Groups like GET-UP will likely lose their right to unionize.
GET-UP also faces opposition from within the graduate student community. This opposition is led by the student group No Penn Union, which believes that each of Penn’s graduate schools that wants a union should form its own.
Biomedical Graduate Studies Ph.D. student and No Penn Union representative China Byrns referred to a BGS poll that showed a majority of the school opposes the union.
GET-UP argues a union would improve negotiations between the students and their employer — the University — who pays them for their teaching assistant and research assistant work. Byrns said, however, that most BGS students do not do teaching assistant work, and wouldn’t be able to add power to a labor strike.
GET-UP recently a launched “BGS Votes Yes” poster campaign, which confused many BGS students. In response, No Penn Union hung its own posters, some of which Byrns said GET-UP ripped down. (Weinberg disputed this point in an email after the initial publication of this post. This claim is "unsubstantiated," she said.)
After GET-UP brought its petition to the NLRB in May, No Penn Union brought its own which had at least 500 names, to the NLRB. They thought this would cancel out some of GET-UP’s support, but the petition failed.
No Penn Union then hired pro-employer lawyer Wally Zimolong pro bono on June 19 to explore next steps for their petition. The Inquirer reported that No Penn Union said Zimolong sought funding from a pro-employer external group, though the lawyer denied this claim.
About a week later, GET-UP members publicized Zimolong’s conservative tweets such as his April 26, 2016 message, “Come on conservatives this transgender bathroom issue is like one of the fake problems that liberals make up. Like equal pay."
No Penn Union fired Zimolong right after GET-UP’s attack, on June 25.
“It was a real picture of strength,” GET-UP member and BGS Ph.D student Liv Harding said. “That’s the kind of thing that our union is working toward."
Byrns worried that GET-UP dramatized the incident and projected No Penn Union as hateful for hiring Zimolong. Meanwhile, GET-UP felt intimidated because Zimolong targeted GET-UP members on Twitter after his termination.
Amid all this internal disagreements, all students can do now is wait for a decision from the NLRB.
“It’s in the NLRB’s court,” Smith said. “You’ll know when we know."
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to an NLRB hearing incorrectly as a "trial." The Daily Pennsylvanian regrets the error.
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