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U. increases anti-union effort

(01/15/03 10:00am)

While the national question of graduate student unionization noisily works its way through the bowels of the National Labor Relations Board as cases across the country wait to be decided, the battle on Penn's own campus for the minds and votes of graduate student employees continues as ideologies and philosophies clash. The University filed an appeal of the National Labor Relations Board's November ruling to allow graduate students in the proposed bargaining unit to hold union elections. The elections will be held next month, but the results will not be revealed until the NLRB has ruled on the administration's appeal. Evidence of the Penn's continuing effort to encourage the graduate student population to "think about it," a bright yellow informational pamphlet appeared in many graduate students' mailboxes on Monday. A letter, "Grad Student Union Won't Serve the Academic Mission" written by Provost Robert Barchi and University President Judith Rodin was also released via the Penn's Web-based Almanac yesterday. A compilation of practical, pragmatic reasons for a graduate student to oppose unionization, the pamphlet cites statistics from The Chronicle of Higher Education that show non-union graduate student stipends to be higher across the disciplines than those of their union counterparts. The pamphlet also noted that, should graduate students unionize, they will "only receive union-negotiated benefits during the semesters when they actually serve as TAs or RAs," creating an organizational nightmare as their status and benefits shift from semester to semester. But the message from the president and provost made its case on more philosophical grounds. "Strip away the legal arguments and political rhetoric and the unionization question really boils down to this: applying for a doctoral or master's degree program simply isn't the same as applying for a job," Rodin and Barchi's letter said. "Graduate students come to Penn not to serve as employees but to become scholars in training under a world-class faculty." Deputy Provost Peter Conn agrees that, far from approaching Penn as an employer, "graduate students apply to Penn for academic reasons -- they are evaluated for admission on academic bases and they receive years of academic training. "We don't build cars or produce fertilizer, though we may produce the research that leads to more fuel-efficient cars or more ecologically sensitive fertilizers," he said. "We don't generate profits or returns to shareholders.... The returns we seek are in a better-educated, healthier society." Many base their pro-unionization stance on the supposition that, as a "corporate university," Penn should be treated as a regular corporation and should in turn, treat those on its payroll as regular employees. "They're concerned about the bottom line," Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania co-chairwoman Elizabeth Williamson said. Philadelphia City Controller Jonathan Saidel, an outspoken supporter of GET-UP's efforts, suggested that not recognizing the University as a regular corporate entity with regular corporate responsibilities is to ignore the modern character of the University. "The Penn that was originally envisioned by Benjamin Franklin was just a place of learning in a loosely-knit organization," he explained. "Today it has... more employees, I believe, than the city of Philadelphia. If it looks like a horse, sounds like a horse and runs like a horse, then it's a horse." Administrators and faculty, however, maintain that academic institutions must remain horses of a different color. "The critical point for students and faculty alike... is that higher education is not an assembly line," Conn said, referencing Professor Emeritus Robert Rutman's letter to the Almanac that ran alongside the statement from Rodin and Barchi. "Each program and each student is different, especially in graduate education. "I think that Professor Rutman has put it well in raising questions about whether the formalized policies and procedures of an outside union should be imposed on the flexible and largely faculty-driven endeavor of graduate scholarship." Penn administrators and faculty are not alone in their convictions. Brown University has also appealed a regional NLRB director's ruling allowing graduate students to hold union elections. "Brown submits that the Board's analysis... fails to take into account the realities of the higher education environment... jeopardizing the essential elements of academic freedom and institutional independence, which lie at the heart of American higher education," the petition said.

City Council opposes Penn's union stance

(01/13/03 10:00am)

The drive toward graduate-employee unionization, it seems, does not abide by Penn's academic calendar. While the fall's spirited campus debate cooled during winter break, Philadelphia's political community weighed in during the University's inter-semester hibernation. Responding to the University's appeal of the Region 4 office of the National Labor Relations Board's decision to allow graduate students in the proposed bargaining unit to hold union elections -- which have recently been set for Feb. 26-27 -- both the Philadelphia City Council and the Philadelphia Central Labor Council passed strongly worded and nearly identical resolutions on Dec. 19 and Jan. 7, respectively. Each urged administrators to allow Penn's "graduate employees" "to form a union and bargain collectively in an environment free of interference, intimidation, coercion, harassment, reprisals or delay." Whatever its rhetorical value, neither resolution will have any effect on University policy or the NLRB's ruling, according to University spokeswoman Lori Doyle and NLRB Assistant Regional Director John Breese. "Everybody's got a view on everything," Breese noted. "We have to make a decision based on the law." Doyle echoed Breese's dismissal of the resolutions. "Since these resolutions have no force of law, we don't expect the resolutions to have any impact on the situation here," she said. Rather, the University intends to begin making its case in the coming weeks by providing graduate students with "factual information. "We expect that when they examine the facts, they'll conclude that unionization is not the best route," Doyle said. Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania -- the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations affiliated organizing committee that leads the unionization drive -- has filed unfair labor practices complaints against Penn under the National Labor Relations Act for allegedly threatening to change the tax status of graduate students should they form a union. Furthermore, many people -- including GET-UP community campaign coordinator Tina Collins -- see Penn's appeal and legal opposition as mere "delay tactics." Although a date for union elections has been set, the results of that election will be kept under lock and key, with the votes impounded until the University's appeal to the NLRB is resolved. The possibility that February's votes may be rendered irrelevant apparently struck an ideological nerve with members of the City Council and the local union leaders and delegates who comprise the CLC. "People have an instinctive reaction against the votes not being counted if the appeal is dropped," Collins explained. "It has a lot of political resonance." With the City Council's resolution passing 16-0 and the CLC's passing unanimously, the resolutions are "a very clear indication of the kind of support we have in the Philadelphia political community," Collins said. "It is reasonable to ask for the votes to be counted once the NLRB has allowed an election.... It's a hard thing to spin against." "It was sort of self-evident," GET-UP co-chairwoman Elizabeth Williamson said. "There wasn't really much of a struggle." Indeed, the only member of the City Council who did not vote for the resolution was Jannie Blackwell, who represents West Philadelphia's Third District, which includes the University. Councilman-at-Large David Cohen, whom Collins called "an incredibly longstanding supporter of progressive causes and labor movements in particular," echoed Williamson's remarks. "I don't remember a single voice of dissent," Cohen said. A labor lawyer, one-time mayoral candidate and graduate of Penn's law school and now-defunct undergraduate school of education, Cohen was more than happy to introduce the resolution. "I don't think you can live a decent life if you don't have democratic working rights," he said, adding that fair labor policy "strengthens democracy and makes the country stronger and better." Many of Cohen's colleagues agreed that Penn's "technical objections" to the resolution should be overcome by what they perceive as ideological problems with the University's position. "When Ben Franklin and those folks created Penn, they visualized it with... a social duty," Councilman Angel Ortiz said, "and as one of the main institutions of learning in this country, it has an obligation to set the tone... to allow people to organize and represent themselves." Both the City Council and the CLC's resolutions also cited the "tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements from the city of Philadelphia... and... additional hundreds of millions of dollars of public funding from both state and federal sources" Penn enjoys as powerful reminders of this private University's public obligations. Hugh Allen, legislative aide to Councilman Richard Mariano, summed up the City Council's reason for picking up the issue. "It's the type of thing that affects everybody," he said.

Landmark citizens project airs

(01/13/03 10:00am)

"Just don't tell anybody we wear makeup." Cracking jokes in the Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theatre seconds before air-time, well-known public television personality Jim Lehrer came to Penn yesterday along with the more than 325 participants in "the poll with a human face," the National Issues Convention in Philadelphia. Imported from around the country as part of the MacNeil/Lehrer Productions' "By the People" project, the citizen-delegates were selected by the University of California, Berkeley's Survey Research Center to represent the views and opinions of the American citizenry. Yesterday's session included the conclusion of the project's Deliberative Opinion Poll and the shooting of a live two-hour PBS special led by Lehrer, featuring the State Department's Director of Policy Planning and former ambassador Richard Haass and, live via satellite, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Though former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was originally billed in Brzezinski's place, a dislocated shoulder prevented her from attending the convention. A cornerstone of the convention was the Deliberative Opinion Poll, or DOP. Polled on their views on foreign policy and international affairs both before and after a weekend of intensive discussions and information sessions on international affairs, the poll represents "what the public would think if it had a good chance to think about it," according to James Fishkin, who first conceptualized the DOP in 1988. Director of the University of Texas's Center for Deliberative Polling, Fishkin coordinated the convention's DOP. "Everything strives for balance and accuracy," Fishkin said. "Surveys are representative but not deliberative; focus groups are... deliberative, but they're not representative, and citizen juries are too small to be representative.... We have a method that attempts to achieve both values at once." As U.S. policy comes under international scrutiny in an increasingly strained international environment, many delegates voiced concerns over the looming conflict in Iraq, the current stand-off in Korea and Americans' awareness of the impact of their country's actions on the rest of the world. "Now that we're on the verge of war and peace, there are important public policy issues," Fishkin said. "The public is traditionally least well-informed, so what they would think would be of interest." Event staff and delegates alike found the experience heartening as well as educational and smoothly run. Penn graduate Mara Bralove of Bralove/Hollman Special Events, the firm that coordinated the convention's logistics, oversaw the process of moving hundreds into and around Philadelphia. "We moved America," she said. Penn students were recruited by MacNeil/Lehrer to perform technical tasks and data entry. While the convention was officially unaffiliated with the University, members of the Penn community were involved as volunteers through their association with Philadelphia Cares or Civic House. "More Americans really do care than I thought," Nursing graduate student and convention volunteer Victoria Lilga said, commending the "realness, niceness and congeniality" of the delegates, staff and production crew. Jay Luxion, a fellow volunteer, one-time College of General Studies student and vice chair of Philadelphia Cares' Board of Directors, was pleased to see "American opinion in depth." "Usually you just see someone stick a mic under someone's nose and demand an opinion," Luxion said. "This was different." Vice President of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions David Sit commended Penn's facilities and services. "The University has been really supportive," Sit said. "We've had great support from President Rodin.... They were extremely accommodating," he said. The final results of the DOP will be announced today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.