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Over 200 Penn graduate student workers rallied for union recognization in front of College Hall on April 26.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Today, two union organizing drives are underway at Penn: one among resident advisors in the dorms, and another among research and teaching assistants. These campaigns follow successful unionization drives by Penn Medicine housestaff, now organized in CIR/SEIU, and Penn Museum Workers United, now members of AFSCME DC 47. Unionization at Penn is a hopeful sign of the times: after decades of attacks on unions and an attendant rise in economic inequality, young workers nationwide are exercising their legal right to organize, and public support for unions has reached historic heights.

Unfortunately, our university administration has responded to organizing drives by launching anti-union campaigns. As faculty members, we object to those campaigns, and we are particularly troubled by administrators’ attempts to enlist faculty in them. In recent months, administrators have emailed professors across the University to direct us to anti-union websites, hoping that we would pass their messages along to student workers. It is incumbent upon us not to do so.

Penn’s websites present talking points that have been part of anti-union campaigns since the 1970s, crafted by anti-union law firms and consultants. When workers launch organizing drives, over three-quarters of United States employers hire such firms. Penn is no different, and currently uses the law firm Cozen O’Connor.

Anti-union campaigns target workers with a standard set of messages, delivered through phone calls, text messages, emails, websites, mailers, and meetings with supervisors:

  • They depict unions as third parties that supposedly interfere with workers’ individual relationships with employers. In fact, unions are organizations of workers themselves. Workers make up the bargaining committees that negotiate contracts, vote on contracts, and participate in grievance procedures. Workers organize unions precisely because individuals do not have effective negotiating power with large institutions. Collective bargaining is a way to make workers’ voices heard.
  • They warn workers about union dues, implying that they might be worse off if they unionize.  This is not a credible argument. Workers don’t pay dues until they vote to ratify their first contract and they have no reason to ratify contracts that leave them worse off.  Furthermore, according to the Department of Labor, unionized workers earn 18% more than non-union workers in the U.S.; union dues are generally less than 2% of wages.
  • They issue threats couched as expressions of concern. For instance, employers warn that it might take workers years to negotiate a first contract and the terms might be even worse than their current terms of employment. These are threats indicating the employer intends to fight workers in contract negotiations.
  • They warn that unions impose rigid rules. This obscures the fact that union contracts take many forms. Unionized workers in U.S. universities have negotiated contracts protecting some forms of flexibility, such as work hours, while establishing guarantees that workers need. This argument also ignores the fact that workers in non-union settings are already subject to rules; unionizing simply allows them a voice in determining and enforcing them. Finally, this argument loses its luster when one realizes that all employers make it: big-box stores, manufacturers, and institutions of higher education all claim that they are uniquely flexible workplaces where unions could not operate.
  • They present positive workplace policies as evidence that workers don’t need unions. This obscures the fact that current policies are products of past mobilizations. For instance, in recent decades, organizing drives by graduate student workers have led universities nationwide to improve funding and benefits packages. Penn’s websites now present those improvements as evidence that organizing is needless or destructive.

All of these talking points appear on Penn’s websites. The administration is deploying other standard anti-union tactics as well. For instance, in April, lawyers from Cozen O’Connor challenged resident advisors’ right to unionize before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB rejected that challenge in August, ruling that RAs and GRAs are indeed employees with the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

Anti-union messages and tactics have no place in our community. Their fundamental purpose is to interfere with workers’ right to organize, guaranteed in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. That law established that the decision to form a union — or not to do so — belongs to workers themselves. Employers do not get a vote in certification elections, and their views are simply irrelevant. Penn’s anti-union campaigns convey an unwillingness to accept those facts. They aim to sow doubt, fear, and confusion among workers to sway the outcome of elections. Their legal maneuvers seek to strip workers of their right to organize entirely.

We further object to these messages because they aim to enlist faculty members in anti-union activity.  The Provost’s guidelines for faculty advisors present intimidating and misleading messages for us to pass along to graduate student workers. They aim to instrumentalize our relationships of mutual respect and trust with TAs and RAs, and in setting us up to transmit misinformation, they threaten to corrode those very relationships and compromise our integrity.

Finally, we object to these tactics because they are inconsistent with the research and teaching mission of the University. Paying law firms to fight our own teaching assistants, research assistants, and resident advisors simply is not a productive use of Penn’s resources. Neither is it a rational defense of institutional interests. The improved working conditions that unionization might yield would not harm the university; rather, they would make Penn a better place for all of us to teach, learn, and conduct research.

The proper posture of an employer during an organizing drive is neutrality: management should simply step back and allow workers to make their decision. Neutrality not only respects the original spirit of the National Labor Relations Act, but it lays the groundwork for a productive, mutually beneficial relationship with a union should workers vote to form one.

For all these reasons, Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-Penn) wrote to Penn’s President and Provost in June asking them to take down all anti-union websites and end the anti-union campaigns. They refused to do so.

Faculty advisors, department chairs, graduate chairs, and deans now have decisions to make. Will we pass along Cozen O’Connor’s talking points and allow ourselves to be used in an anti-union campaign? Or will we decline to do so?

We all have the latitude to say no. In past organizing drives at Penn, some deans simply have not transmitted anti-union communications and have declined to testify against graduate student workers before the NLRB. Some department chairs, graduate chairs, and faculty advisors have likewise made principled decisions not to serve as conduits for anti-union messages.

If we value our integrity, our relationships with student workers, and the principles of freedom of association and workplace democracy, we will follow those examples today.

AMY C. OFFNER is an associate professor of history and president of AAUP-Penn.

EMILY STEINLIGHT is an associate professor of English and vice president of AAUP-Penn. Her email is

Editor’s note: After this article was published, one of the columnists requested their email address be retracted due to concerns about harassment. The request was granted after receiving approval from members of DP leadership, following our company-wide policy on retractions outlined here.