Over 200 Penn graduate student workers rallied outside of Van Pelt Library on April 26 to advocate for improved working conditions, financial security, and protection against discrimination.
The rally comes after the group, which is called Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania, announced on April 24 that over 1,900 Penn doctoral, master's, and undergraduate student workers have signed authorization cards to form a union. The group is hoping to join the United Auto Workers union.
“We realized that a union would be the best way to secure all of the things we want — better compensation, better health care, better grievance policies, better protection for international students, and disability justice,” College Ph.D. candidate Sam Schirvar said.
Graduate student workers previously attempted to unionize in 2018 under the same name, but withdrew their petition to vote to form a union. Several graduate students at the rally said their difficulties during the pandemic sparked the movement again.
“Many of [the graduate workers] felt blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic and did not feel supported by Penn’s response. And coupled with the inflation and the rising cost of living, has spiraled out of control,” College Ph.D. candidate Luella Allen-Waller, the group’s field coordinator and organizer, said.
At the rally, students expressed their desire for financial security, especially in the face of the rapidly rising cost of living.
“It's unacceptable that Penn does not pay its graduate workers who do the bulk of the teaching and research labor at the University enough to get by,” Allen-Waller said.
The unionization effort comes after Penn recently made its largest one-time increase to its minimum Ph.D. stipend.
"Penn is proud of its collaborative culture and the many ways in which the university and its graduate students address student concerns and enhance the academic experience, including the largest, one-time increase in Penn history to doctoral students’ minimum stipends, which was communicated last fall," University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "We believe that our graduate students’ interests are best served by our commitment to collaboration and sitting at the table together and not on opposite sides as adversaries."
GET-UP hopes that Penn will voluntarily recognize the union, Allen-Waller said, especially since the group has had strong support so far.
College Ph.D. candidate Sam Schirvar said that GET-UP will proceed toward an election and certification with the National Labor Relations Board, but the exact timeline is yet to be determined.
"An election to determine the question of union representation is consistent with the democratic process and gives each student eligible to vote the opportunity to decide whether unionization is right for them," Ozio wrote. "In the meantime, we encourage students to learn as much as they can about this important issue."
Daniel Vicente, the director of UAW Region 9 — which GET-UP would join if unionized — also spoke about the UAW’s role in the movement.
“[UAW] doesn't want to dominate your work drive. This is you guys. You lead this movement. You are the workers and we want to support you,” Vicente said to the crowd.
Speakers at the rally also brought up the University’s treatment of international student workers, who GET-UP says face additional costs and burdens associated with relocation, visa applications, and taxes and are often subject to discrimination, according to the group’s website.
“Despite making up over one-third of all graduate workers, on this campus, international graduates workers are neglected, overlooked, undermined and exploited by Penn,” Perelman School of Medicine Ph.D. candidate Alice Sukhina, an international student from Ukraine.
Politicians also spoke at the rally to express support for the union.
“Graduate students are the University and the future of the University. Graduate students are workers,” Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval said, adding that the City is “with [GET-UP] until it gets the union and the contract it deserves.”
Allen-Waller said that the group has no plans to strike.
“A strike would happen if someday all other possible avenues for negotiating a contract had been exhausted,” she said, adding that any students who teach or do research and are paid by the University are welcome to join the group, including undergraduates.
The new effort comes amid a wave of union formations among student employees at other Ivy League schools, including Columbia University, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College. In addition, a supermajority of Penn residential advisors and graduate associates filed to unionize in March.
“I think it's important that Penn should see this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle,” Schirvar said.