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With exactly one week before graduate employee union elections, the composition of the bargaining unit -- a major factor in the outcome of the vote -- is a point of contention in the unionization debate. The defined unit, which includes only certain types of graduate students in only some of Penn's individual departments, determines who would be represented by a union -- and whose vote counts in the union election. "This unit is not appropriate," Deputy Provost Peter Conn said about the allegedly arbitrary inclusion of some graduate students and the exclusion of others. "The unit is internally contradictory... [and] makes very strange divisions between and among students doing identical work." Additionally, for those not on the front line of the debate, confusion has arisen over who is a union candidate and who is not -- although those in the defined unit have received information on union elections, those excluded from the unit have not been notified of their status. "I really don't know," Fels School of Government graduate student Allison McConomy said, when asked if she was in the bargaining unit. She added that the only clarification offered to her has come from her own school's administration. Meanwhile, Penn administrators have been working hard to sway eligible voters. A flyer released by the Office of the Provost last week accused Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania of having intentionally excluded "students such as R[esearch] A[ssistant]s in natural sciences graduate groups and most professional students," while "the union even tried to keep out graduate students in economics and linguistics by arguing that both were 'natural sciences.'" GET-UP spokesperson Joanna Kempner, however, pointed out that the University "did have the option of sitting down and negotiating a unit at any time," rather than allowing the National Labor Relations Board to arbitrate the process. Kempner also noted that the first draft of the Excelsior list, the list of eligible voters, was supplied by Penn. "They gave us a list of everyone they thought was eligible, and we gave them a list of everyone we thought was eligible," she said. "The way this works is that the University -- the employer, as they say -- makes the list in accordance with the definitions" supplied by the NLRB, Conn said. Conn said that every graduate dean, along with the more than 50 graduate chairs, worked together to decide which "individuals would meet the test of inclusion and exclusion in this semester on the day of the vote." Because the New York University case -- in which the school became the first private university to form a graduate student union -- is the most "robust legal precedent," according to Kempner, the regional director of the NLRB who decided on the bargaining unit had little choice but to base her decision on what happened in the East Village three years ago. But Conn said that GET-UP is applying the legal precedent blindly. "The decision itself includes, in at least one case, a comment by the regional director herself on the question of RAs in the sciences," Conn said. "The NYU precedent obliges her to decide against her own opinion." Perceived inconsistencies in the unit have also come under fire, as students doing the same work -- first-year candidates for master's and doctoral degrees in the Graduate School of Education, for example -- are sometimes not all included in the unit simultaneously. "The unit by law doesn't have to be a perfect unit, it has to be an appropriate unit," Kempner said, responding to administrators' criticism and noting that the University should have cooperated and prevented the process from becoming overly litigious. Graduate students will be met on Feb. 26 in Houston Hall by an official from the NLRB and two observers -- one from GET-UP and one from the University. Voters not on the Excelsior list who wish to cast challenge ballots may do so with a valid Penn ID. Challenge ballots will be placed in a sealed, unmarked envelope, which is itself then sealed into an envelope bearing the voter's name. Should the margin of victory in the election be greater than the total number of challenge ballots, those ballots will be discarded. However, if the challenge ballots could potentially change the results of the election, they are removed one at a time, as each name is debated back and forth in front of the NLRB. If the NLRB determines that the individual in question has voting rights, the sealed envelope is removed, added to the general pool and counted anonymously. Conn said that the University is encouraging students to vote whether or not they are on the official list. The University will post notices of election around campus listing specific jobs, departments and schools whose graduate employees are eligible to vote 72 hours before the election, as per NLRB policy. Anyone confused about voting rights can also contact either the administration or GET-UP directly. Still, as the University's appeal to the national office of the NLRB pends, some remain frustrated that next week's elections may decide nothing at all. "They're not really going to count our votes," Kempner said, referring to the NLRB policy that votes be impounded until the employer's appeal is decided.

Penn votes: The union debate

With the graduate student union elections just one week away, Penn's campus is gearing up to vote -- and sorting through the numerous facets of the complex decision. So before the elections take place on Feb. 26 and 27, The Daily Pennsylvanian will examine some of the various issues surrounding the unionization debate, such as healthcare and tax status. As you read, please share your ideas regarding graduate student unionization below.
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