Graduate student workers expressed disappointment with the University's response to the organization’s National Labor Relations Board filing, alleging that Penn wants to exclude over 1,000 graduate students from the union.
Penn is arguing that graduate students are "not employees" in response to their recent decision to unionize. Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania-UAW released a social media post on Oct. 25 reacting to the University’s response, calling its letter to the NLRB “bogus.”
GET-UP criticized Penn’s response letter to the NLRB, which called out participants of specific programs as being ineligible for employee classification, while also claiming that graduate students are not workers “because the teaching and research they perform is an integral part of their educational program and their relationship with Penn is primarily educational, not economic."
In response to a request for comment, a University spokesperson told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Penn is working through the NLRB legal process.
"Penn is proud of its collaborative culture and the many ways in which the University and its graduate students jointly address student concerns and enhance the academic experience," the spokesperson wrote. "We encourage students to learn as much as they can about what unionization might mean for them."
Second-year pharmacology Ph.D. student and GET-UP organizer Jordan Williams said the full documents could not be publicly released at this time to avoid any potential conflict leading up to the hearing.
The statement, which Williams said was submitted on Oct. 19 by Penn’s legal team as part of the NLRB hearing process, stated that graduate students “do not provide instructional or research services between academic semesters or during the summer,” and therefore are akin to seasonal employees.
Previously, Penn argued that residential advisors and graduate resident associates were "not employees" in response to their efforts to unionize, instead classifying them as student leaders with an "educational relationship" to Penn given that they are not on payroll.
“Having pushback from [Penn] was not surprising,” Williams said. “I think what did surprise me was the fact that…they effectively wanted to eliminate almost like a third to a half of our unit size, basically claiming that these graduate workers do not serve in any sort of an instructional or research capacity."
Sixth-year Biology graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences and GET-UP organizer Luella Allen-Waller said that she was particularly frustrated by the argument because she had consistently conducted work for the University between semesters as a mentor to undergraduate students.
“I am paid on a 12-month stipend, so I am full-time, according to my paycheck and according to Penn, and according to the work that I do,” Allen-Waller said.
Williams added that GET-UP was committed to an “all for all” approach to the hearing and is not likely to make any concessions regarding who would be represented by the union.
“We believe that everyone doing work for the University, every graduate worker, is providing service to the University,” she said.
First-year graduate student Freddy Purnell was included in one of the groups explicitly mentioned by Penn as being ineligible for employee classification. According to GET-UP’s post, because first- and second-year graduate students in the Biomedical Graduate Studies program “do not perform instructional or research services,” Penn does not consider them to be employees. They are instead classified as “Educational Fellowship Recipients.”
Purnell argued, however, that he and his peers are consistently performing labor for the University in lab rotations as they work to find their “home lab,” where they will ultimately pursue their thesis work.
“We are just as entitled to unionization as the wider Penn community,” Purnell said.
Allen-Waller, who was previously listed as an Educational Fellowship Recipient at Penn, was similarly disappointed by Penn’s position.
“I know firsthand how much research work [Educational Fellowship Recipients] do,” Allen-Waller said.
“I did do that tangible research work, and so to have Penn say that that doesn't count as labor is disappointing and disheartening,” she said.
Local politicians have also expressed their support for graduate students in their efforts to unionize.
State Representative for the 188th House District of Pennsylvania and 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski released a statement with 20 other state representatives on Nov. 1 “in strong support” of GET-UP and the organizing rights of workers.
In an interview with the DP, Krajewski said that he hoped the visibility of this statement would show workers in Philadelphia that “there are local elected leaders that support them and support their right to organize.”
According to a post by GET-UP, several graduate student representatives met with Krajewski on Oct. 31 to ask for support ahead of the NLRB hearing.
“Graduate student workers increasingly formed the backbone not just of Penn, but many research universities and institutions, and they deserve to have worker protections and compensation that adequately recognizes their labor,” Krajewski told the DP.
The NLRB hearing, which was originally scheduled for Oct. 27, will take place on Nov. 2 after a request for postponement from the University.