Many of Penn’s Ph.D. students have been mobilizing under Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, better known as , in hopes of securing their own labor union so they can negotiate with administration for improved working conditions.
But not all students are in favor of GET-UP’s plan.
Third-year Engineering Ph.D. student Lisa Mariani and fifth-year Engineering Ph.D. student Monroe Kennedy are among the founders of Graduates Entitled to Decide Now, a group designed to counter GET-UP’s efforts.
Mariani and Kennedy sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to discuss GETDN’s perspective.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: When did GETDN start, on what platform and with what support?
Monroe Kennedy: We started two weeks ago, after a Graduate and Professional Student Assembly information session on graduate unionization. Our platform is to give graduate students in different schools the ability to decide whether they think a union is the best option. A lot of students in SEAS were unaware of what was going on, so we realized we needed to inform students about both sides of the issue before they vote.
DP: Do you think that, perhaps the GET-UP platform is worthwhile, but now is not the time to unionize?
Lisa Mariani: We want to recognize that just because we may personally have not experienced some of the grievances pushing the GET-UP platform along, these grievances may be real.
Kennedy: GET-UP’s hearts may be in the right place. We think Penn’s infrastructure is good, but we recognize that any system can use improvement. However, we should determine together the best way to affect change, and vote no until we have explored other alternatives to a union. We’re also open to new measures — for instance, we could hire a professional to bolster GAPSA and other organizations to reduce the dependency on consistent student activism. We’re graduate students first; we’re not executives.
DP: You are both in Engineering, so you receive better funding packages than many of Penn’s graduate schools. Do you think your perspective is tainted by the fact that you’re not experiencing some of these grievances firsthand?
Mariani: We don’t seek to even argue the financial issue of it. So as students ourselves, we’re not going to be affected by any change of the union. But one thing is that the lowest stipend reported by Penn is $24,000. And we’re not sure if that’s nine months or 12 months but if you take $24,000 and divide it by 52 weeks out of the year and 40 hours per week — even though most research appointments are 20 hours per week — it comes to $11.54 per hour, which, if you take the Philadelphia living wage, is right on point.
DP: Your website said you disapproved of how GET-UP was choosing the bargaining unit. How could they do this better?
Kennedy: GET-UP has to specify who the bargaining unit is before they send their pro-union petition to the National Labor Relations Board, so they can come to Penn to facilitate the internal vote. It would be easier if GET-UP would actually ask the individual schools if they were interested in doing this before they brought this to a vote. Maybe all schools would like to be in it, but it should be a choice.
DP: And you feel like you weren’t presented a choice? You’re saying they’re going to submit this petition —
Kennedy: Without data about who actually wants to be a part of that unit.
Mariani: So they may have 30 percent of the graduate student population, but they might have 29 percent from the School of Arts and Sciences and 1 percent from SEAS.
DP: If GET-UP approached you and explained their dynamic, would you reconsider?
Kennedy: We have an open mind; however, we also have done our own research. We feel that a union is a very blunt tool and there might be more precise ways to handle the issues at hand.
Mariani: We’ve had conversations with GET-UP members, including those in SEAS, and we’ve felt that they have not persuaded a change in our perspective. For instance, GET-UP will tell you that if the union comes through, you can pay an agency fee — typically 85 percent of the dues, a figure given to us by an American Federation of Teachers member we spoke to — not to join. Those dues actually go directly to the external organization, like the AFT, and not to the Penn union. So you’re not in the union; you can’t vote, but you are still covered. This isn’t necessarily unfavorable, but it’s possible that GET-UP decides at the negotiation table that the agency fee won’t be an option and that everyone must join and pay full dues.
DP: Do you feel like people are blindly following the union?
Mariani: Yes. So a student in my lab — this is how I became involved in this — asked me if they could hear an opposing side of the union because they’ve only heard from pro-union people. And the first thing I mentioned was the union’s affiliated with AFT. The student had signed a card authorizing the union without knowing what the AFT was. So I felt that GET-UP was not showing the full story to students signing the cards. While a union may actually benefit students, students should be able to make an informed decision. So we’re not saying “never,” we’re saying “not now, not this fast.”
DP: Anything else you want to add?
Mariani: We want to emphasize voting. Though we prefer that the vote be “no,” we want everybody to vote and we want the vote to be reflective of the bargaining unit. So if the union vote goes yes and it’s reflective of the student body, then we are at peace and we’ll happily join. We just want everyone to vote.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.