Expanded FAQ, Round 2

We’ve been getting more and more questions, and we’re happy to answer them! If yours fell through the cracks, drop us a line and we’ll get right on it. If you have a question that isn’t addressed here, fill out our anonymous form and we’ll get to it ASAP!  

Make sure to check out our main FAQ, and check out our first expanded FAQ.

Q: Strike has been a major concern. Please comment on the coming strike of U Illinois graduates. UI GEO claimed that they would not only stop working but also picket classroom and buildings to paralyze the campus.In my opinion, this plan offends students' right to receive education, and is not voluntary. UI GEO also only succeeded once in the negotiation. Since 2000, there has been two strikes and one planned strike, which means UI GEO have already run out of negotiation strategy. How would Penn State graduate labor union avoid this situation?

A: We understand the concern – strikes are never something that anyone undertakes lightly, particularly educators and researchers that would rather be in the classroom or their labs.

It’s important to understand some contextual differences. University of Illinois is in a unique situation nationally; Illinois has been in a protracted budget crisis, with billions of dollars cut from K-12 and Higher Education over the past decade. In response, the University has attempted to cut tuition remission in order to force graduate assistants to pay their own tuition.

In comparison, Penn State is financially healthy and faces no looming budget issues.

University of Illinois graduate assistants have democratically decided through a strike authorization vote – which must be approved by a majority of the membership – that they wish to pursue this course of action, which has been forced by extreme circumstances. It would be up to Penn State graduate assistants to democratically determine a response in the unlikely scenario that we are ever put in a similar situation.


Q: CGE has been claiming that RA/TA/GA wage is not a zero sum game, that's why minimal stipend will not reduce individual's income. But how do you know for sure? For example, overhead fees from research funding pays for most RAs. Since there is always a cap on research funding, it's a zero sum game. Why can unionization force Penn State to spend more money on our stipend without increasing overhead fees on Professors, tuition on undergraduate or even decrease the amount of assistants in the future?

A: This is a good question! One can look at the last three years since CGE began organizing, in which we’ve seen 4.58%, 3.02%, and 2.93% raises to University stipend grades. To our knowledge, no stipends anywhere in the University were reduced to help pay for these raises, indicating that stipend levels can be adjusted upward without a negative impact on individual pay. This makes sense: funding for graduate assistantships are just one item in a very large institutional budget.

Grants are submitted with detailed budgets that include items for graduate salaries and tuition (you can see the NSF budget template here for one example). This is the money that is used to fund graduate assistants. The overhead, also known as Facilities and Administration (F&A) cost, does not go to paying graduate assistants. Details on these costs can be found here. And details on how they have been used in the past can be found here.


Q: My department is fantastic and the faculty treat us with kindness and respect – like colleagues-in-training and not minions to do their bidding. Our program is structured so that we only accept/enroll a small number of students who intend to enter academia and engage in research, and thus, we are all guaranteed funding for 5 years that is competitive with peer institutions. Our key concerns are with the pressure to publish and uncertainty of the academic job market, both of which hinge very heavily on the relationships we build with faculty as mentors and colleagues. I fear these mentoring relationships would be put at risk by inserting awkwardness and formality brought about by fear of litigation or union action. Perhaps I am living in la la land, but I don't understand what problem this union is trying to solve, or how a union would benefit students who are not in dyfunctional environments.

A: That’s great that things are going well for you! Our hope is that all graduate assistants can enjoy the same security that you do.

It’s important to note that peer-reviewed research has indicated no negative effect on graduate/adviser relationships. It makes sense that individuals would be worried about this – thankfully, the evidence is clear.

Even for graduate assistants in good working and learning environments, a union contract would guarantee a level of stability we don’t have now. Several years ago, the University was thrown into turmoil by the administration’s decision to dramatically change healthcare, meaning that graduate assistants were worried about health insurance instead of focusing on their work. A union means that changes like that wouldn’t happen overnight and would require negotiation with graduate assistants. That way, what’s going well keeps going well, without unfortunate crises that hurt our ability to focus on our work.


Q: Despite the claim that membership due is voluntary, is it true that only union members can vote on critical union issues, including the union board and the decision to strike?

A: Union membership is entirely voluntary! As with most membership-based organizations, certain decisions – such as electing leadership – are reserved to the membership. Additionally, the decision to strike and vote on contracts is reserved to membership, though graduate unions usually survey and update all bargaining unit members about contract negotiations.

That’s why it’s so important that people get involved. We want everyone’s voices to be heard in important decisions.


Q: PSEA + NEA dues are listed at $193.50 for a 1/4 year position, and $367.50 for a 1/2 year position. A 1/4 year position is defined as less than 500 hours of work. On a typical RA, is a student considered a 1/4 year appointment? With summer funding, is this still the case?

A: The dues level for graduate assistants has been set at the ¼ year / less than 500 hours position rate.


Q: If it's optional to join the union and pay dues but I'll be represented either way then why should I choose to pay dues?

A: Union membership conveys additional benefits such as professional development, member benefits (such as educator liability insurance), discounted insurance rates, and other financial incentives.

More fundamentally, joining means you have a voice in your union. You can be represented as a nonmember, but we’re stronger when we’re organized, and when everyone gets involved. The choice is up to you!


Q: Are there any plans (or concrete ideas) to negotiate for retirement benefits for graduate employees?

A: No. Bargaining priorities will be set through member survey. If retirement benefits are important to you, please indicate it in a future survey!


Q: Could CGE negotiate for more democratic representation of graduate employees on relevant university committees, for instance a graduate student member (with voting rights) on the board of trustees or general university guidelines to have graduate students represented on the department level (for instance, hiring committees, admission committees, graduate program committee etc.)?

A: A union cannot determine University management (which the Board of Trustees is). Graduate unions often work with Universities to provide graduate assistant perspectives on relevant University-wide committees; however, that does not typically take place on the department level, and the University is not required to allow it.

CGE is committed to graduate representation at all levels of Penn State. We believe that shared governance means that faculty, graduates, undergraduates, and staff should have a meaningful voice in our University community.


Q: Would a union be able to represent one grad student in a dispute with another grad student?

A: PSEA offers trained mediation services for members, subject to the consent of all parties.

Expanded FAQ!

We’ve gotten a ton of questions since our FAQ went up, and we want to make sure we address them! If you asked a question and don’t see it here, shoot us a Facebook message and we’ll make sure it gets addressed. If you have a new question that isn’t addressed, fill out this anonymous form and we’ll get to it as soon as possible!


Q: How does this impact international students? I would not foresee any changes/benefits since the rules and guidelines that govern international students (particularly visa status etc.) are different from US citizens.

A: International students have the same rights to union membership and activity as domestic students. International students would be protected under the contract as well. Many graduate unions have undertaken efforts to specifically protect international students, such as negotiating expedited grievance procedures to protect international students in jeopardy of losing their assistantship and visa. Other graduate unions have taken steps to bargain benefits specific to international students, such as per diems for required trainings on English Language Proficiency (see Michigan’s contract for an example).

CGE has foregrounded international student issues in our work, including bringing an immigration attorney to Penn State to talk to international students after the Muslim Ban was introduced. We also worked with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and our affiliate National Education Association to fight the ban. We remain committed to fighting for international student rights at Penn State.



Q: Why are union dues so low compared to other B1G/AAU schools? If dues are additionally optional, how could this be enough money to support the costs of the bargaining process?

A: Dues-paying membership is always your choice- but we encourage everyone to join! The more members we have, the stronger we are.

Other B1G/AAU schools are usually organized with the United Autoworkers or American Federation of Teachers. We are affiliated with the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the National Education Association, which calculate dues differently (something taken into consideration in affiliation!) Support for our member-led bargaining efforts is provided by PSEA staff, inclusive of organizers, bargaining specialists, and researchers that work with higher education and K-12 locals throughout Pennsylvania. All support is utilized at the direction of our elected, graduate-employee leadership.


Q: I just read about dues being voluntary. Can you provide your source for this, because I don't know how a union would work that way.

A: The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) outlawed the "closed shop," the term for a workplace in which dues-paying union membership is required for employment. Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) created a compromise called the "agency shop" in which non-members would pay an "agency fee," an amount smaller than union dues to help cover the cost of bargaining and maintaining the contract. Allowing agency fee arrangements in the public sector was left to the States to determine.

Pennsylvania passed the Public Employee Fair Share Fee Law (1993), which allowed agency fees if unions and employers negotiated them in to a contract. Many public sector union locals across Pennsylvania do not charge agency fees, as they are not in their contracts.

Janus v. AFSCME (2018) will be heard by the Supreme Court February 26th, and consensus opinion holds that the conservative majority will overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education by this June, making "agency fees" illegal for public sector unions nationwide. What this means: all unionized public sector workplaces, including Penn State, will be "open shops," in which bargaining unit employees that decline to become union members will not pay for their representation, but will be entitled to protection under the union contract.

By the time that CGE begins to negotiate a contract, agency fees will be unconstitutional, and fees will only be paid to the union if an employee chooses to become a member. We encourage everyone to join! Our union is stronger when we’re united.


Q: There has been many questions regarding whether dues will be mandatory and/or whether there will be an agency fee for non-union members. Currently the agency fee question for public sector employees has a case in front of the Supreme Court. This has been the basis for suggesting dues will be voluntary. However, Penn State employees are not public sector employees (e.g. not hired by the state). How does this change in status affect whether dues will be mandatory or voluntary? What is the process for private unions for deciding as such? And what position will CGE take, assuming it is a private union?

A: The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled that Penn State employees and employees of state-related institutions are public sector employees, and Penn State has not contested that it is a public employer as defined under the law.

This was agreed upon by both parties in the first day of the PLRB hearings, found here.

HEARING EXAMINER: Wait one second. Do the parties agree that Penn State is a public employer?


Q: Hi, I have a question about dues. How do you already how much they will be, and would they be subject to increase? Would you be able to predict whether your first contract negotiation demands a raise that would offset that $193 per year?

A: PSEA/NEA have set dues levels, and have provided a figure for what our dues levels will be. They are subject to increase based upon a vote of the House of Delegates, the legislative body (which we will have representation in proportional to our membership) for PSEA.



Q: What are the benefits the university is required to bargain with the union over? For example, does this include…health insurance package, paid parental leave, other paid leave, child care. I understand all of these could be bargained for, but I'm wondering if any are mandatory

A: Compensation, hours, and terms and conditions of employment are all mandatory subjects of bargaining. What this means is that Penn State cannot make changes to these items without negotiating changes with the union. It does not mean that they are obligated to agree to union proposals.



Q: Will a graduate assistant union affect graduate or professional students who are not employees?

A: No. A graduate assistant union will only cover graduate assistants with respect to terms and conditions of employment, and will not impact academic or student matters.


Q: Graduate fellows are excluded from the collective bargaining unit. Will any decisions made by the bargaining unit (e.g., the graduate student health care plan) affect graduate students who are not included in the union? If so, what are the specific ways in which the union contract will affect these graduate students?

A: The union can only negotiate terms and conditions of employment for the bargaining unit members; it cannot negotiate terms and conditions for employees outside of the bargaining unit. Employment conditions for non-represented employees will continue to be set solely by Penn State.


Q: What, precisely, would PSEA's role in the graduate employee union be? Would there be any issues that arose within PSEA or NEA which would affect the graduate employee union at Penn State? Are there any governing rules from PSEA or NEA that the union here would have to follow?

A: Union locals in PSEA/NEA are distinct from their parent affiliate; their state and national affiliate provide resources at the local's request. The degree to which locals participate in the governance or activities of their parent affiliate (both state and national) is up to the local, and issues do not "trickle down" to the local level.

The only requirements that PSEA/NEA set is that locals must adhere to democratic rules of "one member, one vote" and secret ballots for all internal elections.


Q: The FAQ currently states that union membership is voluntary, but that "The union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit regardless of membership status." How would this be enforced, practically? From my understanding, only dues-paying members of the union can vote on bargaining priorities and/or the contract agreement reached by the union and the university.

A: Non-members can reach out to union representatives if they feel that their rights under the contract are being violated, and the union is legally required (under a "duty of fair representation") to represent them regardless of their membership status. Surveys setting bargaining priorities can be sent to all bargaining unit members, not just dues paying members. Voting to ratify a final contract is reserved to membership.



Q: How do I respond to STEM friends who believe they will get the short end of the funding stick if we vote to unionize?

A: The goal of the union is to make sure everyone is doing well – including STEM graduate assistants! We understand why this may cause nervousness, and it’s a common concern.

There are some important things to consider. First, graduate funding is not zero sum – graduate assistant funding is a small budget line in a multibillion dollar institutional budget. Raising stipends one place does not necessarily mean that the funds must come from someone else's stipend.

Second, there have been adjustments to graduate assistant stipends in the past – including minimum stipends – without a negative impact on certain assistant pay grades. Bargaining wouldn’t change that dynamic; it would just give us input on those adjustments, ensure that they're consistent over time, and ensure that they’re made as negotiated.

Third, it’s not in anyone’s interest to lower stipends! We want to make sure graduate assistants get paid competitively, and departments want to make sure funding packages are attractive.

Fourth, we’ve reached out to other graduate unions, and they have not encountered any issues with graduate stipends getting adjusted downward to compensate for raises in the minimum stipend.

We understand this is a cause for concern. If there are any additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us, and we’ll try to help.


Q: How will the representation structure of the union be determined? How will representatives for the bargaining team be chosen? Will there be an effort to ensure diverse representation from a variety of colleges, majors, and graduate positions, and if so, how will this practically be implemented?

A: It will be determined through democratic vote – so it’s up to us!

Typically, graduate unions have “Department Representatives” who are elected by the membership of that department. Those representatives communicate issues and concerns to the elected leadership, and are the first point of contact for graduate assistants that have issues or concerns. Department Representatives will often meet as a group called a “Steward’s Meeting” or “Representative Assembly” to discuss issues and legislate for the union local.

For bargaining teams, there are several approaches. Sometimes, bargaining teams accept anyone that wishes to be a part of the team. Other times, members of the team are elected. There is an expectation that members of the team will be demographically representative, representative across different academic disciplines and job categories, and representative of international students; some graduate unions codify requirements (gender/racial diversity, among other criteria) in their Constitution to ensure that this happens.

We are and will remain committed to a transparent, member-driven, democratic union that reflects the concerns of all members of the graduate assistant community. Union democracy means getting involved, and we encourage everyone to attend meetings and make their voice heard!


Q: How active would I, the typical grad student, have to be in the union?

A: As much or as little as you’d like to be! We encourage everyone to get involved, but it’s not a requirement.


Q: I'm scared of what might happen in my department if I speak out, because I am not guaranteed funding. Retaliation might be super not okay at PSU, but after the hearing, I don't know that I'm totally convinced that they'd all play fair.

A: We understand – unfortunately, this is a scary reality for employees that choose to unionize when employers are opposed. However, organizing remains your legal right. The Public Employee Relations Act (PERA) prohibits “Interfering, restraining or coercing employes in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Article IV of this act,” and “Discriminating in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any employe organization. Retaliation for union activity is illegal and constitutes an “unfair labor practice.” If you feel this has happened, contact CGE immediately and we’ll help.

It’s important to add that faculty, staff, and administrators cannot ask you how you’re voting, and cannot tell you how to vote. Ballots are secret, and will never be revealed to the University.



Q: If I love my job and my department, how can I participate without making it sound like I think I deserve more of everything?

A: It’s great that things are going well for you! We recognize that some departments enjoy productive relationships with their faculty and competitive funding packages, and we want that to continue. Our goal is for every graduate assistant to have the same enjoyment and security in their assistantship, and we hope that you can help us advocate for that.


Q: Where can I find compiled information on how unions have affected the lives and working conditions of graduate students at other universities?

A: There are a couple of sources!

You can look through specific contracts here:http://www.thecgeu.org/wiki/ContractWiki
Columbia's graduate union has provided summaries here: https://columbiagradunion.org/faq/contract-gains-by-other-uaw-academic-unions/
There is also a peer reviewed article that describes impact, found here: https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=articles

Combating White Supremacy and Supporting Graduate Diversity

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

This Week in Graduate Organizing

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

Public Universities and Private Suits: How National Changes Affect Our Graduate Unionization Effort

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

Participatory Budgeting: How You Help Shape CGE and the University

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