Roughly 300 rally goers attempted to enter College Hall this afternoon after showing their support for graduate student workers' push for union recognition.
The rally, organized by Graduate Employees Together University of Pennsylvania-UAW, began on College Green at noon on Oct. 4. Following speeches from multiple graduate students and community members, the crowd walked toward College Hall. Some organizers successfully entered the building and delivered a letter with nearly 500 signatures directed to President Liz Magill and Provost John Jackson.
Upon approaching College Hall, around 14 rally goers — including several GET-UP organizers and representatives from the UAW — were allowed to enter the building before security guards and Open Expression Observers stopped others from entering the building. Outside the building, the other attendees chanted, “let us in” for about 10 minutes.
The organizers who were able to enter the building said they intended to deliver the letter to Magill’s office. It was unclear whether or not Magill or Jackson were present in the building, but after a couple of minutes of chanting and knocking on their respective office doors, a representative from the Provost's Office came into the lobby to receive the letter from UAW Region 9 Director Dan Vicente.
“They were too cowardly to come out themselves," Vicente, a former member of the Local 644 union, said. "They sent their staff, but let’s let them know something: you can’t run from this.”
A University spokesperson confirmed that the letter was delivered to College Hall and received by a representative in the Provost's Office.
"The President and the Provost were in previously scheduled meetings outside of College Hall at the time," the spokesperson wrote. "Open expression observers were present at the rally."
The letter — addressed to Magill and Jackson — said that GET-UP intends to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, adding that their unionization efforts follow similar patterns taken by other unions at Penn and peer universities. Organizers at the rally said that over 2,700 Penn doctoral, master's, and undergraduate student workers had signed authorization cards to form a union.
"While we work in diverse academic and professional fields, we are united by a desire to improve our working conditions as well as the quality of teaching and research at Penn," the letter reads. "Through collective bargaining, we aim to make Penn a stronger, more inclusive and equitable institution."
GET-UP organizers said that they are also planning to send the letter to Magill via email. Organizer Jordan Williams said that the University will have until Oct. 6 to voluntarily recognize the union before graduate workers officially file for approval from the NLRB.
The several hundred rally-goers remaining outside College Hall continued to chant, demanding that the Division of Public Safety allow them to enter the building. The crowd retreated after organizer and Penn graduate student Hilah Kohen said they were told by a present Open Expression Observer that they could not enter due to building capacity limits.
In a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, DPS confirmed that approximately 14 of the organizers were allowed to enter College Hall.
"They were asked to limit their representation to approximately 10 people for safety reasons," the statement said. "The remainder of the group continued their rally outside on the steps of College Hall."
DPS added that "Open Expression engaged with the organizer to understand their goals and how they could be accommodated."
Students in class inside College Hall were permitted to exit the building after class ended at 1 p.m., but no new rally-goers were allowed to enter.
Prior to approaching College Hall, rally goers heard speeches from GET-UP organizers in various departments across the University, as well as representatives from supporting unions and local councilmember Kendra Brooks.
Brooks, the first Working Families Party member to be elected to city council in Philadelphia, discussed the unionization efforts in the context of Philadelphia at large.
“By forming a union, you are standing up not just for yourselves,” Brooks said. “You are standing up for all Penn workers, all academic workers, and all working families in Philadelphia.”
Ayesha Sheth, a seventh-year graduate student in the South Asia Studies department, spoke on the specific struggles of international students in graduate programs at Penn.
“Penn continues to view us as cheap labor, a vulnerable population whose very right to stay here they can control,” Sheth said, recalling the lack of support she said her peers received from the University during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GET-UP organizer and sixth-year Ph.D. student Sam Schirvar said that he was disappointed that Penn administrators appeared to have not been willing to receive the letter in person. He said that GET-UP had set up and practiced with crowd marshals, equipped with high-visibility vests, to ensure that rally-goers would remain safe and respectful for the duration of the rally.
“It was clear they just didn’t even want to receive the letter at all,” Schirvar said.
Chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student Sam Layding was one of the organizers who was allowed to enter the building.
“We just wanted to come in here to hand deliver our letter to the president and the provost, to let them know that we’re going to file for union election later this week, and that we would appreciate it if Penn would respect the legal process of our filing,” Layding said. “We’ve delivered our letter, so I think that we’ve come in here to do what we came to do.”
In the letter, students and organizers referenced Penn's history of allegedly engaging in union-busting tactics. The Daily Pennsylvanian previously reported that six months after a supermajority of residential advisors filed to unionize under OPEIU Local 153 and the NLRB, Penn alleged that the RAs were not employees of the University but instead attempted to classify them as student leaders with an "educational relationship" to Penn since they are not on the payroll. In August, however, the NLRB recognized Penn RAs and GRAs as employees of the University, ordering an official union vote. The RAs and GRAs voted to unionize this past week.
“We’ve been disheartened to see the university administration’s delays, spurious legal objections, and refusal to listen to majorities of museum employees, resident physicians, and residential advisors who seek to unionize,” the letter reads. “We hope that moving forward, Penn will respect the democratic will and self-determination of university employees rather than attempt to persuade workers not to unionize.”
The letter also requests a meeting with Penn administration "to ensure a fair and efficient process to verify majority support for GETUP-UAW as our union."
Schirvar told the DP that the rally was a celebration of the fact that a supermajority of graduate workers have signed authorization cards.
“We're asking that the Penn administration recognizes the fact that a majority of workers have signed union cards and allow us to hold a union election without trying to interfere with the decision making of graduate workers by putting forward misinformation and misleading statements as they have done with other workers at Penn in the past,” Schirvar said.
College Ph.D. student and GET-UP field coordinator and organizer Luella Allen-Waller agreed, adding that the authorization cards represent the “democratic will” of the graduate workers.
Previously, on April 26, over 200 Penn graduate student workers rallied outside of Van Pelt Library to advocate for improved working conditions, financial security, and protection against discrimination.