White supremacy has had an increasingly visible presence on Penn State’s campus in the past year. From the Evropa fliers being posted in March and September to a Richard Spencer supporter suing Penn State and Ohio State for not allowing the speaker a platform, white supremacy has consistently been front and center. A panel this past Monday entitled “White Supremacism at Penn State: What It Does, How to Fix It” kept the focus on the issue and attempted to address race-related problems PSU is experiencing, including a homogeneously white population and the potential of Spencer being allowed to speak at the university.
What was largely absent from this conversation was the role of graduate assistants. Much of the “how to fix it” conversation focused on how undergraduates could use their influence to demand change as well as how the model of diversity-centered recruitment the Philosophy Department implemented in the mid-2000s should be applied across the campus. However, this type of policy isn’t a panacea; far from it according to Kristin Rawls, a former graduate assistant at Penn State who, in a larger piece about the toxic culture at PSU, has discussed the racism, sexism, and ableism she saw in the Philosophy Department even after it had made efforts to increase diversity.
Diversity is a way to help combat the white institutionalism of universities such as Penn State, but it does little if those who unfairly do the bulk of the resisting are not supported or protected. That’s where a graduate union can help. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s August 2017 report, as of 2016, unionized workers consist primarily of women and/or people of color. This increase in diversity has led to raised wages for these groups as well as union efforts to combat discriminatory wage gaps through increased pay and workplace transparency.
CGE admires these movements toward equality and strives to further them through advocacy work and, ultimately, a seat at the bargaining table. The vote on unionization won’t happen until at least this spring, but CGE already has a history of supporting diversity and equality efforts. When the Trump administration attempted to implement the travel ban earlier this year, CGE and PSEA brought in an immigration attorney to talk to graduate employees about their rights. CGE has also participated in a number of LGBTQ pride parades and in 2016 the organization co-sponsored a Title IX panel with the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.
As CGE continues to grow, we strive to maintain our dedication to diversity and continue advocating for graduate assistants regardless of race, class, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, nationality, religion, or citizenship status. Fighting discrimination and standing against white supremacy should not be controversial in 2017, but given the subject of Monday’s panel, it clearly is.
In Solidarity, the Coalition of Graduate Employees
In case you hadn’t heard, this was a great week for graduate unionization, both at Penn State and around the country. Graduate employees here showcased their labor on Wednesday during a work-in at Kern Building and yesterday graduate employees at the University of Chicago scored a major victory when they overwhelmingly voted in favor of a union.
This win is particularly sweet in the wake of University of Chicago administrators’ attempts to stall the vote by appealing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).However, in the face of many of the same tactics that Penn State administrators have used against graduate workers in addition to the NLRB appeal, graduate labor won.
The status quo will not always be the status quo, and University of Chicago graduate employees made that fact emphatically clear this week. They are taking a stand for their rights, regardless of the union-busting tactics administrators try.
CGE congratulates the graduate employees at the University of Chicago, and especially their union organization, Graduate Students United (GSU). We hope administrators stop emailing you soon so that you can get back to celebrating.
In solidarity, the Coalition of Graduate Employees
Penn State administration’s opposition to graduate unionization is crystal clear. However, what might not be clear is why university administration is willing to spend upwards of $500,000 to fight our unionization campaign. While one answer is that spending this amount of money in the short-term saves the administration money and negotiation efforts in the long-term, another reason for their attempts to derail graduate unionization is that the winds may be changing in their favor at the national level.
The big change that has already happened involves the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Since taking office in January, President Trump has filled two vacancies on the NLRB with Republicans Marvin Kaplan (the chief counsel of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission) and William Emmanuel (a corporate lawyer). Filling these vacancies gives conservatives control of the NLRB and is particularly troubling for unions given the Supreme Court’s announcement in late September to take on a case regarding fair-share fees in public sector unions.
This case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council, will decide whether or not fair-share fees are constitutional. These fees are paid by non-union members in the public sector to help cover the costs of their workplace union’s collective bargaining activities. Because the fees are not put toward expressing political speech, but instead dedicated to negotiations with employers, something even non-union members benefit from, the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that such fees are constitutional. However, Mark Janus, the individual bringing the current suit, is challenging that ruling.
The Supreme Court heard a similar case last year in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and appeared to be ready to rule that fair-share fees were unconstitutional, which would have significantly reduced the amount of funds available to public sector unions for collective bargaining purposes. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia on March 13, 2016, resulted in a deadlocked decision, but now with Justice Neil Gorsuch filling Scalia’s seat, the Supreme Court is poised to more or less return to Friedrichs in the Janus case and, if Gorsuch votes as expected, it’s likely that fair-share fees will be ruled unconstitutional in the next year.
While Penn State is not a private university and is, therefore, not fully subject to the changing nature of the NLRB, Supreme Court, and executive administration, it also isn’t completely isolated from the effects of these changes. With potential cuts to federal funding and student aid for universities coming in the next year along with the lingering effects of Great Recession-era state funding cuts and rising tuition, Penn State, along with other universities, is uncertain about its future funding, as illustrated by President Eric Barron’s September 26, 2017, email imploring “every Pennsylvania resident in our Penn State community to contact their state legislator to encourage them to finish the state budget and fund Penn State.”
Like many other universities, both public and private, Penn State is concerned about its future funding and like many other universities, including Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, it’s using stalling tactics and well-worn arguments in the hope that a changing administration, Supreme Court, and NLRB can help them. Concerns about a university’s future are valid, but stalling graduate unionization and hoping for an intervention from the federal government is not. Graduate employees at Penn State and elsewhere aren’t about taking their universities to the cleaners, but instead advocating for an underappreciated and overworked employee base. Unions improve universities and it’s up to us to fight to prove this supposedly controversial fact because instead of looking at us, Penn State’s administration is looking to Trump for help.
In solidarity, the Coalition of Graduate Employees
If you’ve ever been part of a group with a budget, you may have heard the term “participatory budgeting,” but what exactly is it? Participatory budgeting (PB) involves democratizing the fiscal decision-making process of institutions and organizations like unions. A union gives workers a voice in our workplace; PB empowers rank and file members to identify which needs our union should address. Any CGE member can propose initiatives that benefit our organization, and then work alongside our organizing committee to develop these proposals into substantive programs. Programs are voted upon before receiving funding, ensuring all members have a hand in how we spend our money and where we take our organization.
You might be asking yourself, “how does PB benefit me?” CGE members are united around our shared vision of making Penn State an institution where we can be proud to work. As such, we are active in many graduate organizations across campus. PB allows us to harness our membership’s social circles to address graduate employees with particular interests. For example, are you in a graduate organization where several graduate employees have families and are invested in better childcare? We want to give you the resources to host events catered to these graduate communities. Personalizing outreach and dealing with the issues small graduate communities care about improves the quality of life for all.
Likewise PB is essential for uplifting marginalized communities. International students, women, LGBTQ+ students and students of color are among the most vulnerable graduate employees, facing unique challenges in our workplaces that go unaddressed by Penn State. Are women within your department concerned with rampant cases of sexual harassment and the imminent rollback of Title IX protections? PB allows CGE members from these communities to voice their needs, tackling these issues with the full weight of our resources and membership behind them. We are fighting for a better workplace for all graduate employees. An injury to one is an injury to all.
A union relies first and foremost on a sense of solidarity between workers. As we implement PB, we strengthen the bonds between our communities of graduate employees. However, the success of PB depends on your involvement. We encourage you reflect on the graduate communities you are a part of, and on the concerns they voice that have gone unheard. Envision how we can address these concerns and uplift these communities. All ideas are welcome and we are eager to help you develop them into meaningful initiatives. Just because the university is inhibiting our unionization efforts doesn’t mean we stop trying to improve the lives of graduate employees.
In Solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees
I’m a new grad assistant here at Penn State, and I’ve already had my share of women’s issues at our great university. This is concerning considering that Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, has decided to roll back Title IX legislation created in 2011 to reduce instances of sexual assault. In my department (which is a supposedly “progressive” discipline) I have seen professors blow off the issues of sexual assault during seminars, consistently push women out of their comfort zones, and have seen a trans woman asked what her “real” name was. Worse yet, when talking to some of my older peers this appears to be par for the course. It shouldn’t be.
It should not be acceptable that my colleague is scared to file a notice of sexual harassment, especially considering that this may be the last semester that Penn State will follow the Title IX guidelines set in 2011. When a university is slow in denouncing white supremacy, refuses to let students organize so that they can have a voice, and directs all notices of sexual assault to a local women’s shelter during non-workday hours then there is real call for concern as to its future policy decisions for vulnerable populations. We at CGE are already familiar with PSU’s tenuous support for people of color, for queer communities, and for those economically disenfranchised; how will women be treated any differently?
After all, DeVos’s decision to roll back Title IX also gives universities the opportunity to roll back recent equality initiatives in the name of efficiency. In spite of this, many universities have they will not back down in the fight against sexual assault on their campuses. I personally am disappointed that Penn State has not done the same.
Though Penn State promises to be an inclusive university, President Barron and other administrators have refused to take a strong stance against injustice, most recently when the administration defended the posting of white nationalist Evropa fliers. Free speech is unquestionably important, but it is ironic that the administration defends these fliers as it simultaneously attempts to silence graduate employees from asserting their rights as workers and engages in token multiculturalist acts such as renaming the Center for Women Students as the Center for Gender Equality. The administration, as benevolent as it claims to be, is not fighting for the rights of minorities or defending those of its workers. It’s time to unionize so that we may not only defend ourselves, but fight for true equity at Penn State.
In solidarity, a fellow graduate employee
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to answer it!
In solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees
In the past week and a half, Penn State’s administration has insulted every aspect of graduate assistants’ work or, as they were so fond of calling it, our “activities.” For those of you who have been keeping up with CGE’s Twitter and Facebook, this will come as no surprise, but for readers still scratching their heads, let me explain:
On September 5, 2017, CGE, along with their Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) representatives, went toe-to-toe with Penn State’s administration and their representatives, Ballard Spahr, LLP, a high-powered and grievously expensive Philadelphia law firm, at a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) hearing. This hearing will result in a ruling (likely sometime in December) on whether or not Penn State graduate assistants are employees. Given that the PLRB handed down a favorable ruling to Temple University in 2000 when the graduate assistants there were facing a similar challenge to unionization, we expect the PLRB to reaffirm that graduate assistants are, as we all know, workers employed by Penn State. However, when the hearing wrapped up on September 13th, it was clear that Penn State’s administration would say anything to deny that fact.
PSEA and CGE called witnesses for the first two days of the hearing and argued graduate assistants’ labor qualified as work on the grounds that we provide an essential service to Penn State, are paid wages, receive healthcare benefits, pay taxes, and are processed through the same payroll system as other employees. What was Ballard Spahr’s reaction to our logical arguments? The assertion that they needed a break after each of our witnesses testified because they had to frantically Google search each witness and dig up dirt on them: aka their CVs. They then went on to imply that what we were doing wasn’t work if 1) we used what we did to get a future job 2) we enjoyed what we were doing.
Once CGE’s and PSEA’s two days were up and Ballard Spahr’s witnesses took the stand (in contrast to our mere two days, their testimony lasted FIVE), the offensive statements began flying at a rapidfire pace (see our Twitter feed for proof). There were small offences, such as using every word in the English language except for “work” to describe what graduate students do and suggesting that because our roles at the university are so complex that we can’t be classified as employees.
However, then there were some big insults, including the claims that teaching does not constitute a service to the university and that TAs don’t lessen the workload of professors and, in fact, may increase their workload. Both claims consistently appeared throughout faculty members’ and administrators’ testimony. Essentially, according to those who testified, graduate assistants are a burden to Penn State rather than an asset; we do no work, bring in no money, and require expensive “financial support” (which we apparently do nothing in exchange for) from the university in order to get our degrees.
Over the course of the hearing, Penn State’s administrators, contrary to what they say, showed that they do not value graduate assistants or the labor we do. In fact, they downright insulted us by suggesting that during our time here we do nothing of value for the university, in spite of all the research and teaching we do.
Penn State’s administrators say they care, but what they are interested in is the university’s bottom line and they showed that they’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the short term to keep the long-term status quo. This is why we need a union. If the administration does not value us and the work we do, then we cannot expect them to have our best interests at heart. Only we can make a difference because we know all the work we do and, unlike the administration, acknowledge that it is labor. A labor of love, perhaps, but still labor.
In Solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees