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Graduate Employees Together rally in front of College Hall on Oct. 4, 2023.

Credit: Sydney Curran

The Coalition of Workers at Penn — a recently formed association of unions across Penn’s campus — held a press conference in front of College Hall on Thursday.

The “Unions Belong at Penn” event was led by the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO — which represents over 100  unions in the city — and several of Philadelphia’s elected officials. At the press conference, the Coalition of Workers at Penn called on the University to respect workers’ rights to organize and to stop their pattern of union-busting. The event was organized by 2018 Penn graduate Jana Korn, the organizing director at the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO.

The press conference, which was attended by more than 50 Penn workers, precedes a union election scheduled for Apr. 16 and 17 to vote on the unionization of graduate student workers at Penn. Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania represents more than 4000 graduate student Penn employees who are forming a union to improve their working conditions.

According to GET-UP’s website, graduate students make essential contributions to Penn but struggle to pay high housing costs in Philadelphia and face increasing career uncertainty “given the precarious nature of higher education.”

Sixth-year Biology graduate student and GET-UP organizer Luella Allen-Waller told The Daily Pennsylvanian that graduate workers at Penn have been growing their union since the early 2000s, and that over 3000 Penn graduate workers signed union authorization cards last fall.

The Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO and State Representative for the 188th House District of Pennsylvania and 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski sent a letter to the Penn administration Thursday morning calling on the University to respect the right of collective bargaining, to stop the spread of anti-union disinformation, and to come to the negotiating table in a timely manner to negotiate a union contract. 

“That is the bare minimum you should expect from a world class institution,” Krajewski said during his speech at the press conference.

The letter was signed by all of Penn’s unions and 30 elected officials — including the entirety of the Philadelphia State Senate Delegation, Philadelphia City Council members, and Pennsylvania State House members.

Krajewski told The Daily Pennsylvanian that his role in organizing the letter included reaching out to his colleagues and explaining how a university with billions of dollars should be able to give workers the contracts they are asking for.

“It’s hard for an elected official not to see the contradiction in that and take on the side of workers,” Krajewski said.

Allen-Waller added that "the data is pretty clear," showing that "Penn grads are united in wanting a say in our working conditions.”

However, Allen-Waller said that Penn attempted to delay the recognition of their union by filing a claim with the National Labor Relations Board to exclude over 1,000 graduate students from the union.

In their claim, Penn argued that participants of certain programs are ineligible for employee classification and that graduate students are not workers because the teaching and research they perform are part of their educational program.

On Mar. 19, the NLRB issued an affirmative decision regarding the petition filed by GET-UP that sought the right to vote for union representation. In accordance with the NLRB's decision, the election will be held on Apr. 16 and 17 in Houston Hall.

A Penn spokesperson told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the University believes the NLRB correctly decided the bargaining unit issue.

"We encourage all graduate and professional students who are eligible to vote to learn as much as possible about this significant issue and to vote," the Penn spokesperson wrote.

In her speech, Allen-Waller called on the University to stay neutral in GET-UP’s upcoming union election, saying that graduate workers deserve to make their voices heard without interference from Penn.

“It’s the least they can do after responding to our overwhelming demonstration of unity by hiring expensive lawyers to challenge us — their own workers and Penn community members, the ones who teach their classes and perform their research and generate their patents,” Allen-Waller said.

In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Korn added that in addition to Penn staying neutral in the GET-UP election, she hopes that the University will “negotiate a contract in good faith” with unions that are currently in the bargaining phase of their campaign, including the resident assistants and the residents and fellows at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Other speakers at the press conference included a resident assistant from United RAs at Penn, Yvonne Harris --President of AFSCME Local 590, which represents workers at Penn’s libraries, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (D-Pa.), Councilmember Nicolas O’Rourke (D-Pa.), and Senator Nikil Saval (D.-Pa.).

“Philly is a union town, and Penn deserves unions. Unions belong at Penn,” O’Rourke said.