Penn graduate students just made a decisive step towards their plans to establish a labor union on campus, but they might encounter more opposition than they anticipated.
The pro-union group Graduate Employees Together — University of Pennsylvania, or GET-UP, has fielded criticism from both the University administration and other graduate students.
On May 30, representatives from GET-UP brought the authorization cards that they’ve been collecting from graduate students since March to Philadelphia’s National Labor Relations Board office.
Though GET-UP member and Perelman School of Medicine Ph.D. student Francesca Tuazon would not disclose the number of cards, she said they represented a majority of Penn’s Ph.D. students. According to data from an American Federation of Teachers press release, this would mean they totaled over 1,000.
The NLRB needs just 30 percent of the bargaining unit’s support to hold the simple majority election, but Tuazon said GET-UP would not have submitted the cards unless they were confident they had enough to win the ultimate union vote.
But some Ph.D. students remain opposed to the initiative. Ian Henrich, the president of anti-union group No Penn Union and a Perelman School of Medicine Ph.D. student, said around 800 graduate students do not support GET-UP.
Internal opposition to GET-UP
Now that GET-UP has given its petition to the NLRB, the board will decide on the union’s participants — known as the bargaining unit — who will then vote for or against the proposal, a process Tuazon expects will occur over the summer via mail-in ballots.
The NLRB will also receive an opposing petition of 500 to 600 names from No Penn Union. Henrich said that, per the NLRB’s “dual card doctrine,” signatures on this document negate authorization cards.
In other words, if a student changes his or her mind on supporting GET-UP, the student can sign No Penn Union’s petition, which would, in effect, cancel the signature for GET-UP. Before, students had to go to GET-UP’s office in order to retract their cards, which many found inconvenient.
No Penn Union has been garnering support through talks at student government meetings and emails sent out to constituent members. Another group, Graduates Entitled to Decide Now, has also been disseminating anti-union messages similar to those of No Penn Union.
Tuazon said GET-UP’s strategy in the face of non-union groups has been to spread more pro-union messages. She did not acknowledge No Penn Union’s substantial support base, but Henrich said that GET-UP is aware of his group’s work.
“They definitely know about it,” he said. “They, in effect, have ignored the petition on our end.”
Is GET-UP truly democratic?
GET-UP hopes to represent Ph.D. students who receive compensation for their work — whether as teaching assistants or research assistants — to democratize the working environment and give student workers more autonomy over their conditions, Tuazon said.
Despite its name, No Penn Union — and GETDN — agree that unions are beneficial and democratize the working environment. They just don’t agree with GET-UP’s implementation of one monolithic union for many of Penn’s graduate schools.
Instead, No Penn Union and GETDN argue each graduate school each has unique needs that mandate nuanced, individual unions, should the schools decide that they want them in the first place. As an example, Henrich pointed out that Biomedical Graduate Studies students — except those in neuroscience — do not have teaching assistant requirements, while School of Arts and Sciences students do. He referenced Yale University’s “micro-unions” as an example of this approach to unionization.
He added that BGS and Wharton conducted internal surveys in their respective schools to gauge support for GET-UP, and only about 10 percent of each student body supported the measure. The bulk of support, he said, seems to come from humanities students.
In an email, Ph.D. students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and GETDN co-founders Lisa Mariani and Monroe Kennedy said that many BGS students are angry with the movement because they would be in the proposed bargaining unit, even though the internal election showed the union’s lack of approval in that school.
GET-UP chose to include seven out of Penn’s nine graduate schools with Ph.D. programs (which, according to a press release, would create a group of 2,300 eligible voters), leaving out the Wharton School and the Engineering School.
Tuazon said this is for “purely strategic reasons” related to their desire to unionize quickly in Trump’s administration. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Trump has two seats to fill in the five-member federal NLRB, and union supporters fear that more conservative potential appointees could reverse its 2016 decision that allowed student-worker unions like GET-UP to form at private universities.
Henrich called GET-UP’s choice “interesting” and suspects that it is due to a lack of pro-union support from Wharton and Engineering students. Excluding them, he said, would bolster chances of winning the majority vote needed to establish the union.
“It will be interesting to see what the NLRB board says in regards to whether or not this is an appropriate bargaining unit,” he said.
Tuazon added that many students are skeptical about union dues, which she attributed to misinformation. She said that although 1-2 percent of salaries will be taken out as dues, the net salary will be adjusted to accommodate.
In addition, no dues will be collected until the union has voted to approve them. If the union is established, no money will be taken from stipends granted to students over the summer.
Administration: Graduate students are students before employees
Penn’s administration reiterated its stance that students are learners first.
“We view graduate students as students and our future colleagues rather than employees, and we believe we can better support them without the intervention of a labor union,” University spokesman Stephen MacCarthy said in a statement.
This was consistent with Penn president Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price’s letter from March 2017, urging graduate students not to unionize.
“Penn faculty serve as mentors, not managers,” they wrote. “That clearly changes when the interaction — which would be governed by an external third party — is no longer collegial, but instead the subject of union rules.”
Tuazon is concerned that Penn will delay the vote on the union. Both GET-UP and the University administration must propose a bargaining unit to the NLRB who will make the ultimate decision based on those opinions. Penn could protest the NLRB’s choice to waste time or try to shrink the bargaining unit, Tuazon said.
Other universities have already done this.
Yale administrators challenged the democratic value of the micro-union strategy which enabled the unionization to pass with fewer votes, Yale Alumni Magazine reported.
Members of GET-UP and the AFT who back the union maintain that students are employees of the University.
Even though he is opposed to GET-UP’s strategies, Henrich hopes the graduate student community will stay united.
“Despite our differences, we are all students here at Penn,” he said. “Let’s not let the unionization effort divide us.”