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Courtesy of GET-UP

Penn graduate students have recently received permission to hold an election to decide on whether or not to form a union — however, if peer universities are any indication, union recognition in the near future is far from guaranteed.

Many university administrations, including Penn’s, are fighting the National Labor Relations Board's August 2016 ruling that grants graduate students the right to unionize. These administrations, which include Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of Chicago, are either filing appeals against graduate student elections or completely refusing to bargain with these groups. 

Zach Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Politics and member of pro-union organization Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania, said that Penn’s administration is acting similarly to those at the University of Chicago, Yale, and Columbia, whose graduate students' efforts to unionize prompted the NLRB’s 2016 ruling. 

Credit: Alana Shukovsky

“What all those universities have done is to not recognize the graduate employees, refuse to sit down at the bargaining table, and wait to be compelled by the National Labor Relations Board to do so, just like employers in a whole bunch of institutions in the U.S., not just in higher education,” Smith said. 

Although the NLRB recognizes graduate students as employees, University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement that Penn views graduate students as students and future colleagues instead of employees, stating that, “we can better support them without the intervention of a labor union.” 

In December 2016, Columbia graduate students voted 1,602 to 623 in favor of forming a union and on December 2017 the NLRB officially certified the Graduate Workers of Columbia—United Auto Workers. 

After receiving the NLRB certification, the Columbia students immediately renewed requests to bargain with the university, but on Jan. 16, four weeks later, Columbia had neither made a decision about the request nor indicated a specific timeline for a response, The Columbia Daily Spectator reported.

A spokesperson for the union said they are considering filing an unfair labor practice with the NLRB if Columbia keeps delaying action.

Graduate students at Yale voted to unionize in February 2017, even though Yale is refusing negotiations. Graduate students have continued to petition the university and conducted a hunger strike last spring, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. 

The Yale union, Local 33—Unite Here, did not immediately respond to requests for comment by The Daily Pennsylvanian.

In a vote of 1103 to 479, students at the University of Chicago decided in October 2017 to unionize, but the University of Chicago administration has since filed an appeal to the NLRB against the vote. 

Chaz Lee, a member of Graduate Students United and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago in the Music Department, said he feels that the university is stalling the process waiting for new Republican appointees to the NLRB to overturn the ruling once more.  

“What the UChicago administration is hoping is that the new Republican majority NLRB will lift the 2016 ruling and revoke the status of graduate workers at private instutions as statutory employees," Lee said.  "So, you know, for them it’s a waiting game."

Smith agreed that this may be a tactic the Penn administration is taking, as well.

“One of the reasons that we filed in May is that we were trying to have this election and beat the Trump clock, the appointments,” Smith said. “But the NLRB Philadelphia office took a while, Penn dragged out the hearings over several days and slowed down the process, enough that we’re in the situations that we’re in.”


Credit: Carson Kahoe


The NLRB has notoriously reversed its position on private university graduate students unions, often depending on the party in office. The NLRB has not recognized graduate students’ right to collective bargaining since 2004, when it reversed an earlier 2000 decision to recognize private university graduate student unions.  

In 2004, Penn graduate students held an election on whether to unionize and a Daily Pennsylvanian exit poll indicated a majority of eligible voters voted to unionize. Before the official votes were counted and released, the NLRB ruling was overturned and Penn students were not able to unionize.

New York University, whose graduate students were able to unionize before the NLRB overturned the ruling in 2004, remains the only private university with a recognized graduate student union.

Not all private universities are refusing negotiations, though. Though “disappointed in the outcome” of the vote, Tufts University agreed to bargain with the graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences after an affirmative vote in May 2017. Brandeis University, American University, and The New School have also agreed to respect the outcome of the students’ vote and begin bargaining. 

Graduate students at public universities, notably at the University of Michigan, have collective bargaining rights protected under state law, and many have been operating for decades. 

At the time of this article’s publication, Penn has not filed an appeal. Given past precedents, Smith remains worried that the University will fight unionization, but said he would “love it if Penn would prove us wrong.” 

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