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6 questions and answers you’ve always (or just recently) had about unionization

A lot has been happening lately in relation to graduate unionization at Penn State, and CGE is here to answer a few of your questions. Whether you’re new to the organization or Penn State and wondering what unionization is about or an old hand who has secretly been wondering these things, we’ve got the answers to your questions about unionization!

Q: Aren’t unions for miners? 

A: No! Unions are for any group of employees that believe they can all do better by working together. This means that there have been unions across many different fields: nurses, MLB umpires, pilots, flight attendants, and engineers. Graduate unions have been active in the United States since the late 1960s when graduate employees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison started organizing. They won the first graduate union election in 1969, and had their contract in 1970. 


Q: I heard there was a hearing, do we have a union yet? Is there a vote? 

A: We just finished up a hearing in front of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), but this hearing was not about whether or not we have a union. The hearing was to decide if we are employees or not. Penn State administrators argued that we are not employees, we argued that we are employees. Once the PLRB decides this we should get the chance to vote. Remember, we get to choose if we want a union or not. 


Q: What is a union contract? Do we have a contract now? 

A: Right now most graduate employees sign a contract once a year or once a semester. These contracts can change every time we sign it and we have little say about what goes into it. We want to change this so that we are actively involved in negotiating our contract. In addition, we want a contract that would cover multiple years so we can have more assurance about what to expect in the future. 


Q: Will I get forced out of my office/lab at 5 P.M. if we have a union?

A: No. The purpose of a union is to help us all do better. We would not be limited in the amount we decide to work. Conversely, if you are being required to work more than what you have agreed to you would be able to get help. Right now graduate employees who are being overworked have little recourse, and we want to change that. But we want to give graduate employees more options, not force them all to work from 9 to 5. 



Q: Will I have to pay more taxes? 

A: We’ve heard this from a lot of people. Penn State administrators have been claiming that unionized graduate employees will lose their exemptions from FICA taxes. This is not true. Temple University graduate employees are unionized and they ARE exempt from FICA.


Q: How does unionization and healthcare work?

A: This has been a concern for grad employees for a while, whether they experienced the debacle of five years ago, the one of this August, or both. Contrary to what the administration claims, graduate employees don’t currently have meaningful input because the administration doesn’t actually have to listen to us about things that we think are important, like mental healthcare. A union would give us an actual say in our healthcare plan and what’s included.


In short, unions are for graduate employees as well as miners and offer numerous benefits and protections to us. The administration made it clear during the PLRB hearing that they didn’t have our best interests at heart, but a graduate-employee-operated union certainly does, so when the time comes, vote yes!

Didn’t answer your question? Send us an email at and we’ll be happy to answer it!

In solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees