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Credit: Julia Schorr , Autumn Powell

Days after GET-UP, Penn's pro-union graduate student group, withdrew its petition to represent graduate and professional students at Penn, members of the group have spoken out to explain the decision and to reaffirm their commitment to eventually unionize. 

The decision comes just two months after the National Labor Relations Board gave GET-UP the right to hold an election on whether to unionize. It mirrors the decisions of unions at schools like Yale University, University of Chicago, and Boston College have made out of fear that the NLRB may rescind an important precedent established under the Obama Administration that guaranteed Columbia University students the right to unionize. 

Before GET-UP members voted to withdraw the petition on Feb. 15, Penn administrators had sent multiple emails to Penn's graduate students urging them to vote against unionizing. The student-wide election had been planned for sometime later in the spring, but will now not occur. 

GET-UP’s decision is the latest in a string of similar moves at other colleges, where unionizing efforts have stalled, members say, due to the likelihood that a Republican majority will soon take over the NLRB and dismantle the Columbia precedent.

President Donald Trump's latest nominee for the NLRB, John Ring, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Labor Committee on March 1. If confirmed, Ring would restore a 3-2 Republican majority.

GET-UP member and English Ph.D. student Aaron Bartels-Swindells said GET-UP made the decision to withdraw in order to protect the NLRB's 2016 ruling that recognized Columbia's graduate students as legal employees of the school — a ruling that applied to students at private universities across the country.

He said members worried that if they held the election, Penn would appeal the result, which it did in 2003 to withhold the results of a unionization election. While the appeal was being processed, an NLRB ruling overturned a decision allowing graduate students at private universities to unionize. The votes were never counted.

“The idea was to remove the ability of the [Penn] administration and other anti-union university administrations from filing reviews, which would have been heard by an anti-union board, which would definitely have reversed the Columbia precedent,” Bartels-Swindells said.

Between the Trump-appointed board members and the Penn administration’s continued opposition to unionization, GET-UP members reasoned that the Columbia decision was at risk of being overturned, so they made the difficult decision at their Feb. 15 general body meeting, after a vote, to withdraw the petition. 

GET-UP member and Anthropology and GSE Ph.D. student Miranda Weinberg said the decision to withdraw the petition was “the right move” for GET-UP given the political climate.

“Penn has chosen to align themselves with the Trump administration on this,” Weinberg said, adding that GET-UP is now hoping for voluntary recognition from Penn rather than going through the NLRB, which is how graduate students at New York University successfully unionized.

Olivia Harding, a GET-UP member and second-year biology Ph.D. student, said she has “a lot of feelings of hope and solidarity” toward similar movements at other schools, especially at colleges where students have temporarily suspended their unionization efforts. 

“We have to think in terms of the dimension of time as well as space,” Harding said. “We made this decision for timing reasons, and I know it was the right one.” 

Third-year political science Ph.D. student Katie Rader said that after the “really sad” decision, GET-UP members discussed the future of the union, which Rader said was “exciting and energizing."

An immediate next step is to support GET-UP members in the Graduate School of Education, who have been campaigning for clearer sexual harassment policies

Despite her optimism for GET-UP's future plans, Rader said that it was “frustrating” to see Penn administrators like President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett strongly oppose unionization efforts.

“I feel sad and angry that this is the position we’re in,” Rader said. “But I also feel energized, and hopeful that this is something that will preserve and promote grad organizing for the next generation of students.”

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