Fifty-three Penn professors released a letter Sunday night in support of the graduate students’ movement to create a labor union.
Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania, or GET-UP, is the student group advocating to form the union. The group has the support of over 1,000 Penn graduate students, and made its movement public over a week ago to gain more support.
Some of this support has come from faculty members. After GET-UP’s declaration was released to the public, professors including Suvir Kaul of the English Department wished to demonstrate support for the graduate students and opted to write the letter. They circulated the letter among likely supporters during spring break to gain signatures.
The letter explains that graduate students have the legal right to form a union and outlines some benefits.
“These are graduate student workers, with an emphasis on workers,” Kaul said. “We believe that unions are a good way to allow any organization, including a university, to best represent itself.”
The faculty letter lauds unions as a preservation of democracy at the micro level.
“At a moment when federal and state administrators have begun to roll back hard won civic and collective rights,” the letter reads, “it is incumbent on universities to model a different understanding of the relations between administrations and workers, one that is visibly participatory, collective and democratic.”
Aaron Bartels-Swindells, GET-UP member and doctoral candidate, added that although the University has a democratic student government, there is no way for graduate students to ensure that administration acts on any measures they may pass. He does not consider this to be democratic and hopes a collective bargaining union can address this.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy released a statement when GET-UP first became public. The statement expressed the University’s view of graduate students as “mentees and future colleagues,” not employees, and linked to two new University webpages — FAQs on unionization and programs available to graduate students to improve their conditions, including new initiatives for next year. MacCarthy did not wish to add to his earlier statement for this article.
Other counterarguments to unionization include its potential to degrade the relationships that exist between faculty and graduate students. However, the faculty letter asserts that graduate students would negotiate with administrators and not faculty, and also cites a study that shows that unions actually foster better relationships between faculty and students.
GET-UP member and doctoral candidate Gabriel Raeburn cited a statement from the University of Michigan’s unionized graduate students — “our material conditions are your learning conditions.” That is, when graduate students are satisfied with their working environment, they perform their jobs better.
Bartels-Swindells also explained that the court decision that allowed unions to form at private universities pertained to teacher assistants and research assistants, but the National Labor Relations Board will decide who is and is not protected if the decision to unionize comes to a vote, he said. Right now, GET-UP can only examine previous cases to speculate as to who the union would protect.
Raeburn said promoting the union has been rewarding. Also, because GET-UP spreads its message via one-on-one conversations most of the time, it has bypassed many difficulties inherent in Penn’s decentralized graduate school network of 12 separate institutions.
The letter remains open for additional faculty to sign. By Tuesday night, it had 59 signatures.
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a quotation from GET-UP member Gabriel Raeburn to Aaron Bartels-Swindells. The article also referred to GET-UP as “Get Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania” instead of its correct name, “Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania.” The DP regrets the errors.