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In a letter dated June 8, Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors requested a policy of neutrality pertaining to unions. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors requested a policy of neutrality and removal of anti-union messaging from University administrators in a June 8 letter.

The letter referenced six web pages published by the Office of the Provost with “Frequently Asked Questions About Unionization” and recommendations to faculty on permissible ways to communicate with graduate students about unionization. The letter was addressed to President Liz Magill, Provost John L. Jackson, Jr., and College Houses and Academic Services Senior Director for Housing Operations Lulu Kaliher.

AAUP-Penn President and History professor Amy Offner said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian that the links have been forwarded by deans across the University encouraging faculty to “pass along anti-union talking points to graduate students.”

She said that AAUP-Penn’s executive committee decided to draft its letter after observing the uptick in anti-union messaging in response to unionization efforts by resident advisors and graduate students last spring.

Offner said that these are “standard features of anti-union campaigns that are designed by high-priced, anti-union law firms” — one of which is Cozen O’Connor, which AAUP-Penn said the University is currently working with in its “campaign against resident advisors." 

Penn’s “FAQs” page, for example, includes information about union elections, dues, and contracts to encourage graduate students to consider a “range of views.” According to AAUP-Penn's letter, this language inaccurately depicts unions as third parties interfering with student-faculty and employer relationships.

“Varieties of perspectives already exist within the body of graduate workers themselves, and the goal of the union campaign is to have those conversations amongst ourselves,” College Ph.D. candidate and organizer for Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania Sam Schirvar said.

The DP obtained the University administration's email response to AAUP-Penn from June, which reiterated its stance that the websites are not intended to discourage workers from unionizing, but instead meant to provide students with as much information as possible to be able to make the decision for themselves.

A University spokesperson confirmed that the University received the letter.

Scott Williams, an OPEIU Local 153 union organizer and 2016 graduate of the Graduate School of Education, said that he supported AAUP-Penn’s request on behalf of RAs and GRAs unionizing at Penn.

“It has nothing to do with providing academic discourse,” Williams said. “We believe that Penn is systematically opposing union organizing, which is a fundamental right that workers have been fighting for for centuries.”

To allow student workers to make the decision to unionize without employer influence, AAUP-Penn's letter requested that the University implement a policy of neutrality by removing all messaging related to unions in order to allow workers full influence over their own decision to unionize or not.

“A policy of neutrality means that the employer stands back and lets workers make their own decision,” Offner said.

Offner and associate professor of English and Vice President of AAUP-Penn Emily Steinlight recently wrote a guest column in the DP advocating for faculty to disengage from the University's anti-union campaigns.

"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," they wrote in the column. "Some department chairs, graduate chairs, and faculty advisors have likewise made principled decisions not to serve as conduits for anti-union messages."

Schirvar said that the University has been leveraging faculty as a vehicle for distributing this messaging, rather than communicating with graduate students directly.

“Because at the end of the day, it's us who decide whether or not to form a union, and it's up to [us to] decide what the priorities of that union should and shouldn't be,” he said.

AAUP-Penn plans to hold several events over the course of the semester, which Offner said will keep members informed about anti-union messaging and how to avoid passing it on to students they work with.

“We need to be talking amongst ourselves as faculty about how we maintain our own integrity, and how we prevent ourselves from being instrumentalized by anti-union law firms and an anti-union administration,” Offner said.