Recently, a number of graduate students at different private universities have started creating or joining labor unions. Private universities such as Yale and Cornell have, in recent months, attempted unionization drives — but this doesn't seem to be the case at Penn.
Graduate students occupy an interesting place in the structure of the University. While taking and teaching classes, they serve as both learners and laborers, and labor unions are common among groups such as teachers.
Penn graduate students have a history of attempting to unionize. Graduate Employees Together — or GET-UP — a group of graduate students founded in 2001, was never recognized as a union by Penn, and has not been active recently. This stagnancy contrasts with events at other universities.
New York University graduate student Chris Nickell, a member of NYU's Graduate Student Organizing Committee, said that unions can benefit graduate students "to combat the precarity of employment in the academy these days — the manifestations of which range from adjuncts having to work three or four jobs with no hope of a tenure-track position to grad workers being expected to eat Ramen three days out of the week because it supposedly 'builds character.'" He added that labor unions can help graduate students "advocate for a living wage and stipends and benefits like health insurance, dependent healthcare and childcare.”
“In just the past few months, Columbia has gained a hearing with the NLRB and the New School is on its way to a private agreement to recognize their grad workers. Harvard also went public last month and some folks from Yale have a good piece out in n+1 about their recent efforts,” Nickell said.
He added that he had “heard that grads at Penn, over the years, have mounted tentative efforts at unionization, but the administration never seems to let that get off the ground.”
However, current Penn graduate students seem apathetic to the winds of change. Unlike at other universities, there has been no move toward unionization among graduate students. However, that does not mean that the issue is out of mind.
Several graduate students at Penn declined to be interviewed for this article.
Historically, more public universities have had unionized graduate students than private universities. There is also a history of judicial questioning on the legality of unionizing graduate students. For instance, in 2004, the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students were students, not workers, so universities had no legal necessity to bargain with the union.
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