Labor Day: Administration’s “Proportional” Response

In February of this year, the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) filed with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) to have a vote on unionization at Penn State. The filing was the culmination of a year’s work collecting authorization cards and the expectation was that once we had filed, the vote on unionization would happen within a few months. However, as we quickly learned, Penn State’s administration had other ideas. 

On April 6, 2017, while graduate employees were at a work-in at Old Main, Penn State’s administrators informed the PLRB that they not only opposed our unionization efforts, but also that they would be challenging our status as employees, even though we do visible work for the university, receive W-2 forms, and the PLRB ruled in 2000 that graduate assistants are employees. Nonetheless, next week, Penn State’s own challenge our standing as employees begins. Between September 5th and 13th, the PLRB will hear both Penn State’s arguments as well as those of graduate employees to determine, legally, whether Penn State grad workers have the right to unionize. 

Penn State recognizes the challenges in front of it. The PLRB has ruled in the past that graduate employees can form a union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled last year that even graduate assistants at private universities have the right to unionize. Knowing this, the university stalled over the summer and pushed the hearing date back to allow for more preparation time and the wasting of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars on lawyers from the law firm Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, whose salaries can be $600 per hour. This firm has a history of dealing with unionization efforts and promises that its lawyers “know how to help clients maintain a union-free environment.” 

Penn State’s administration has deemed it appropriate to spend an astronomical amount of money in an attempt to stall an entirely legal vote on unionization as well as engage in active anti-union practices, as evidenced by their distribution of anti-union propaganda to new graduate employees at orientation this year. The administration knows it’s in the wrong, but is fighting us tooth and nail because it cares more about its profit margins than the humans it employs to teach students, advance research, and enhance the school’s reputation.

The administration’s blocking of our right to vote on unionization must stop and hopefully will after the PLRB hearings, but right now we need you to make your voices heard. CGE will be organizing work-ins both at the Penn Stater hotel where the hearing will be and in Old Main between Tuesday, September 5th and Wednesday, September 13th. The work-ins at Old Main will run from 10 AM-4 PM and the Penn Stater work-ins will be 8 AM-5 PM daily. Join us at either location and stand with us in solidarity as we fight for our legal right to have a seat at the table where our futures as graduate employees are determined.


In solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees
 

Emergency Adding Healthcare: 2017 Guide

By now, most, if not all of us, are aware of the healthcare debacle that graduate workers have been dealing with for the past week and a half. Since the release of the information regarding our new health care policy, there has been substantial confusion about off-campus coverage, receiving proof of insurance cards, using the University Health Services (UHS) pharmacy, and a myriad of other issues. To clarify these issues, CGE has been releasing information and guides since August 10th. Here is what we have learned during the course of our research.

Emergency Add

The “emergency add” is the key to acquiring access to off-campus healthcare providers, both mental and physical. With an emergency add, graduate workers are added to the UnitedHealthcare plan before they normally would be (sometime between now and mid-October). You can request to be emergency added by calling UHS at 814-865-7467. We strongly recommend all graduate employees do this, regardless of whether or not they have an upcoming off-campus appointment, because this insurance is included in our compensation packages and we deserve to have access to it. This is an especially important step for international graduate workers, who must emergency add before September 5th to avoid a hold on their accounts as well as a late fee.

Once the emergency add call has been completed, wait 24 hours and go to United Health Group's Website. Once there, type in the school’s name (“The Pennsylvania State University – University Park”). After the web page redirects you, click “Login to My Account” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen and create an account. Upon creating your account, you’ll be able to access a digital version of your insurance card as well as order a physical copy. You can access your account within a day or two of getting emergency added even if you haven’t heard anything further from UHS.

Healthcare Services at UHS

As stated in The Graduate School’s Facebook post, UHS is going to hold all bills until October. This means that you will be able to utilize UHS and its pharmacy without an ID card until you receive your insurance cards in October (or sooner if you’ve done the emergency add). In order to use these services, tell UHS that you are a graduate assistant or fellow when you come in and do the same if you visit the pharmacy, though the procedure is more formal at the latter. To acquire prescriptions, you will have to sign a form confirming you are on an assistantship or fellowship and chosen to accept Penn State’s health care plan. You should NOT be asked to pay for these prescriptions out of pocket.

Non-UHS Services (Physical and Mental)

In order to see non-UHS providers, an emergency add is required, as you’ll need to bring proof of insurance, if just the policy number, to healthcare providers off campus. Regardless of what you have heard, neither mental nor physical healthcare providers are leaving the UnitedHealthcare system in droves, so you should be able to see your regular provider without issue if you have your proof of insurance and/or policy number. It’s always good to check with your provider to see if they accept UnitedHealthcare insurance (called United Behavioral Health or UBH for mental healthcare providers) though, so be sure to ask whether you’re covered under the new plan before you set up an appointment.

You can search to see if your mental healthcare provider is covered under the new insurance either via CAPS or through UnitedHealthcare’s website. You can also find local doctors, hospitals, laboratories, etc. covered by UnitedHealthcare here. Keep in mind though that because contract negotiations between UnitedHealthcare and certain physicians and therapists are still ongoing this list will likely change as the year progresses.

Dental (United Concordia) and vision (Highmark Blue Shield) insurance providers are remaining the same for the 2017-18 school year and, as far as we know, the change in insurance years (which will happen on September 1st) will have no effect on graduate employees.

Instructions for Enrolling

According to the email Penn State sent out to graduate employees on August 18th, the process for enrolling in the healthcare plan differs depending on your assistantship and citizenship status, so please read the following carefully.

  • Domestic graduate assistants and graduate fellows: If you are only interested in single coverage, you need to take no further steps to get coverage (see below if you have dependents). You are automatically enrolled in the insurance plan as part of your compensation package, you just need to emergency add yourself into the system to get an insurance card before October. If you do not want insurance coverage through Penn State, you must opt out of the insurance by completing the declination form here before September 5, 2017.

  • Domestic graduate assistants and graduate fellows with dependents: You are automatically enrolled in the plan because it’s part of your compensation package. However, if you want to add dependents to your plan, please go here. If you do not enroll your dependents, your insurance status will automatically be set to “single.”

  • International graduate assistants and fellows: In order to get coverage, complete the steps below (this can be done before or after requesting an emergency add from UHS):

    1. Go here.

    2. Click “Waive Your School’s Insurance” on the right-hand side menu (second option below the “Student Tools” section). We understand that the wording is confusing, but by clicking “Waive” you are NOT forfeiting your access to Penn State’s student insurance plan.

    3. Scroll down on the page to click “Waive Now” and enter your the details for your Penn State insurance or an alternate health insurance plan if you’re not using the one Penn State offers (see below for what to enter to get the Penn State insurance plan).

    4. Yes to all waiver questions (again, NOT waiving the right to insurance).

    5. Enter your insurance information or that of the Penn State plan if you want Penn State’s insurance. If you have your own insurance, be sure to enter what’s on your insurance card here. If you’re accepting Penn State’s insurance, please enter what’s entered below

    • Company Name: UHCSR
    • Company Mailing Address: P.O. Box 809025, Dallas, TX 75380-9025
    • Member ID: 000
    • Group #: 2017-547-2
    • Policyholder Member ID#: 000
    • Insurance Plan Type: PPO

Are you a graduate assistant/fellow? Yes/No

You should see a confirmation page that looks like this:

Keep in mind that if you are declining Penn State’s health insurance or need to enroll dependents in your plan, that must be done here by September 5, 2017. Additionally, if international students have not submitted insurance information by this date, they will have a hold placed on their account and will have to pay a late fee of $50 or $100 (Penn State does not specify how the fee amount is determined).

If you have any questions, please feel free to direct them to CGE and we’ll do our best to provide answers. Even as the administration refuses to do its job and disseminate easy-to-understand information, CGE will continue working to spread information and lessen confusion amongst graduate employees during these difficult times.


In solidarity,

The Coalition of Graduate Employees

Emergency Add: Penn State’s healthcare changes and their impact on you

Since August 10th, Penn State administration’s failure to provide accurate and timely communication has led to a  great deal of confusion about the status of the Penn State student health insurance plan, which is offered as part of the compensation package for graduate assistants (TAs, RAs, and fellows). In a statement posted to Facebook, the Graduate School claims that we still have coverage, but will not have our information in the insurance company’s system (and thus no proof of coverage) until mid-October at the earliest. We will therefore be unable to access care anywhere outside of UHS, including hospitals and emergency rooms. There have been reports of confusion at UHS, and it remains unclear whether all graduate assistants will be able to access their prescriptions at the pharmacy.

For informational purposes, the Coalition of Graduate Employees has compiled the following information about our current situation and how we got here.

  • Starting in the 2017-2018 academic year, Penn State chose (as per usual, without meaningful input from graduate assistants) to switch insurance providers from Aetna to UnitedHealthcare. Listed benefits remained the same, while premiums increased. Senior administrators within Penn State made emphatic promises to graduate assistants that all previously covered healthcare providers would still be in network under our new plan, and that there would be no disruption during the switch. Graduate assistants were also informed that, despite having a multi-year contract with UnitedHealthcare, Provost Nick Jones was firmly committed to sending the contract back out to bid if we see steep premium hikes in subsequent years.

  • Our contract with Aetna expired on August 9. They are not responsible for, and will not pay, any medical claims after that date.

  • As of August 15, we do not have any clear insurance information from UnitedHealthcare. While our contract ostensibly went into effect on August 10, it appears that Penn State has not provided UnitedHealthcare with a list of plan enrollees, and so UnitedHealthcare is unable to verify whether we are covered or put us in their system. Thus, we are unable to obtain insurance ID cards via UnitedHealthcare’s website as University Health Services claims we can.

  • It currently appears that services at UHS are (mostly) unaffected. Services outside UHS (including mental health care, specialist visits, and emergency medical care) are currently inaccessible unless you request an “emergency add” to the system, as discussed below.

  • The Coalition of Graduate Employees has received reports that some mental health providers  are considering leaving our provider network. We are working to verify these reports and demand that Penn State keep their promise to maintain our previous network of mental health providers. Please contact us if you have any concerns about your providers or any information about providers who are leaving or remaining in network.

  • CGE encourages all graduate employees to call the University Health Services Insurance Office immediately at 814-865-7467 to request an “emergency add." Even if you do not have a planned non-UHS doctor’s visit, all graduate employees deserve to have access to the insurance we’ve paid for in the case of not just accidents or unexpected injuries, but regular and routine coverage.

This is only the latest example of Penn State failing to fulfill its commitments to graduate employees. If you are interested in joining us to ensure that graduate employees have our interests represented at Penn State, come get involved in the Coalition of Graduate Employees. Our next general meeting will be Tuesday, August 22nd at 6:00PM in room 220 of the State College Municipal Building. We will discuss the history of Penn State’s disregard for graduate assistants’ healthcare and what we can do about it when we all stand together.

In Solidarity,

The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State

 

Why I Won’t Be Voting for the Graduate Workers’ Union at Penn State (But You Should)

My name is Mehmet Ali Döke, but I go by Mali. My first day in State College was January 1, 2013, when I left my old life at home behind and moved here to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Entomology at Penn State. I was absolutely thrilled to be here and loved being given the opportunity to attend grad school at this excellent institution. In the last four and a half years I had the chance to work with some of the legends in my field, conduct cutting edge research, and enjoy all those other things that come with being a grad employee here. 

My experience at Penn State was pretty much what you would expect to experience (or what I was expecting to experience) until one day we were casually informed that our medical insurance was being restructured in a way that would grant us lower benefits for a higher cost. Now, I understand things can change and many things in life are not to be taken for granted. However, I just could not understand why there was no dialogue between administration and graduate employees in the many months during which the school was negotiating a new deal with the insurance company. Why had we not been asked for our opinion? Could we have maybe worked together with the administration for a better outcome? With these questions on my mind, I went to the very first town hall meeting held thanks to the hard work of a handful of my peers that were also not exactly happy about the process. In that town hall meeting, it became clear that the administration had no intention of changing their approach and the lack of dialogue in matters that directly affect our (my) livelihood would repeat forever unless we put our foot on the ground and claimed a seat at the table by all means necessary. So, we got to work: we organized demonstrations, we worked through GPSA, we put time into endless “task force” meetings, which only led to small victories here and there. It was clear that to get a seat at the table, we needed legal, organized representation; we needed a union. Thus, we started pouring endless hours of work into that. 

Personally, I will admit that I did way less than my fair share; for this I apologize to all the amazing people I befriended through the unionization activities who poured so much of their time and their lives into this, I honestly thought they would just crack – they did not. Thanks to those dedicated people who persisted in their pursuit, we are now closer than ever to actually have a vote to simply say “yes” or “no” to this single question: “Do we want legal, organized representation that will fight for our rights and only our rights if and when they are at stake?” In sum, do we want to unionize?

As I said in the beginning, I have been here for four and a half years and I am almost done with my degree. I just defended my dissertation and very soon I will be out of this town and this institution. So, unfortunately, I will not be voting in the election that will be held sometime in the next year. There are two very important lessons to take from my personal story and many others’ who have been here as long as I have. First, the administration’s union-busting tactics prevent people like me from voting by challenging our status as employees, thus delaying the voting process. The second lesson is about the fear I have heard from some of my peers about some individuals getting too strong and “owning” the union and abusing the system for personal benefit. The fact that I (who has been there for the whole ride to this point) and most of the people I worked alongside in this journey will not be able to vote for a union should be enough evidence that there is no conspiracy, there are no union bosses, nobody will “own” the union, and nobody can personally benefit from it. The union is made up of its members, the union IS its members. Every member of the union will be better off in its presence and nobody will be “more better off” than another. Nothing less, nothing more. 

So, please, do go out and vote when the next generation of organizers asks you in the near future. And, I honestly and wholeheartedly believe that you should say “yes” to your one chance to have that seat at that table. And why stop there? Do not just vote and disappear. This union will literally be yours, act like it! Go to the meetings, get to know your fellow graduate employees, and offer your support and solidarity for those who are in need, and ask for it when you are the one needing support. 

I am leaving and I will miss all the people and the experiences I got to have in my life here – a lot of them through the unionization effort. As I depart, I place my share of the work in your hands, and I trust you to do the right thing when the time comes. You got this!


This blog post was contributed by Mehmet Ali Döke, Entomology

Changes in Student Health Insurance: 2017-2018

Graduate students may recall receiving an email back in April about changes in the Penn State Student Health Insurance Plan for the upcoming academic year. Here’s a breakdown of what is staying the same, what’s changing, and what you can do to prepare. Need a crash course on the basics of health insurance? Check out this video.
 

 The basic benefit package remains the same.

  • Deductibles (the amount of money you have to pay out-of-pocket before the insurer starts to reimburse you) differ depending on whether your policy is for a single person or a family.

    • The deductible for an individual is still $250.

    • The deductible for a family is still $500.

  • Coinsurance payments (the percentage of the cost covered by the insurance company) remain the same, depending on whether the provider is in- or out-of-network.

    • If you are seeing a provider who is in-network, United covers 90% of the bill.

    • If you are seeing a provider who is out-of-network, United covers 70% of the bill.

  • Out-of-pocket maximum (the most you are required to pay each year in deductibles, copays, and coinsurances) remain the same, depending on whether the provider is in- or out-of-network, and who is covered by the policy.

    • For a single person, the out-of-pocket maximum with in-network providers is $1,300. The out-of-pocket maximum with out-of-network providers is $15,000.

    • For a family, the out-of-pocket maximum with in-network providers is $2,600. The out-of-pocket maximum with out-of-network providers is $30,000.

If your sole experience with the healthcare system involves going to UHS, then you won’t notice any changes in your health insurance coverage. Everything provided at UHS will continue to be covered at 100%. There is still no copay at the UHS pharmacy.

Premiums are going up.

But the increase isn’t extreme if you have an assistantship. The cost of a single student’s plan will increase from $3,296 to $3,418. If you have an assistantship, Penn State subsidizes your health insurance at 80%, so the total cost to you is $683.20, which is $24.40 more than last year. Premiums are automatically deducted from monthly paychecks. Below are the deductions that will appear on your paycheck, and the change from last year. [Note: Premiums are higher in the spring semester to pay for health insurance coverage throughout the summer.]

Household type

Fall Semester (Sept. – Dec.)

Spring Semester (Jan. – May)

Single student

$67.60

-$1.40

$82.64

+$6.00

Student and spouse

$152.10

-$3.15

$185.94

+$13.50

Student and child

$152.10

-$3.15

$185.94

+$13.50

Student and children

$229.84

-$4.76

$280.96

+$20.40

Family (child)

$229.84

-$4.76

$280.96

+$20.40

Family (children)

$310.96

-$6.44

$380.12

+$27.60

We are changing health insurance providers.

The student health insurance will be provided through United HealthCare instead of Aetna, which may mean that some of your providers that were in-network become out-of-network. Many of the providers that accept one type of insurance also accept the other, but this is not always the case. It important to double-check to make sure your provider is in-network with United, or you will be paying the out-of-network costs (Remember: United covers 90% of the cost of in-network visits, but only 30% of out-of-network visits).

So, how can you avoid expensive medical bills because of out-of-network providers? Here are several steps you can take to make sure you are getting the most out of your health insurance.

  • Call your provider and ask them! Your provider, or someone in their office, should know if they accept United HealthCare. Talk to your providers now so you can be prepared when the insurance coverage changes.

  • Search United HealthCare’s website. Visit this website to see if your provider is currently in-network. Click on “UHC Choice Plus” to search for doctors, tests and imaging centers, and other services that are in-network. To search for mental health care providers, click on “United Behavioral Health.”

  • Check the provider directory. CGE has created a pdf directory of the healthcare providers and facilities that are considered in-network as of August 3, 2017. The information in these directories is always changing, so check the website for the most up-to-date information. Also note that the provider directory does not include mental health care providers.

  • If your provider is not in-network, ask them if they would be willing to participate. They may be in the process to be credentialed (i.e. become in-network) – it takes a while to sort out the details. You can also nominate your provider by contacting United HealthCare.

International students have more limited options.

International graduate students must either demonstrate proof of insurance for themselves by submitting a waiver application, or purchase the Penn State Student Health Insurance plan. The following will no longer be considered adequate coverage to receive a waiver:

  • Short-term International Standards Organization plans

  • Health insurance plans through Student Medicover

You can find out more details on the new requirements for student health insurance plans here. If you have any questions about these changes, or run into any problems, let CGE know about it. We want health insurance that works for all graduate students!

Unionization and the LGBTQ Movement

Here at the end of Pride month it’s important to remember the history of the labor movement and the LGBTQ movement. Despite the traditional view that Unions are a majority of white conservative men, unions have been strong allies in both the fight for LGBTQ liberation and in the maintaining of our rights. Before the legalization of same-sex marriage, national pride parades, and the Stonewall riots unions have been fighting for LGBTQ rights.

The National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards elected Stephen Blair, an openly gay man, as its vice president in 1933. Blair was instrumental in the West Coast strike of 1934, which directly led to the unionization of every port in California, Oregon, and Washington. In 1948, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States.

There are many stories like this, from the 1930’s to today. There have been numerous movies and books produced about the stories of Marsha P Johnson (who was trained by labor activists), Harvey Milk (who had strong ties with labor), and various strikes where LGBTQ and Labor have worked together (such as the UK Miners’ Strike of 1984).

Despite this, LGBTQ traditions have been corporatized. It is important to understand, and make it well known, that unionization is a queer tradition. When national studies show that gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual people make less money than their straight coworkers the answer is not to fight against your coworkers, but to bargain for your wages with them. There’s a reason that unionized workers on average make 30% more than non-union workers, because when we fight together for what we need, we win.

Speaking to my own personal experience, unionization is important for my healthcare as a bisexual trans woman. I will be attending Penn State this fall as a graduate employee, and I’m lucky to be going to a university that offers its grad students insurance. Not only do people who are not straight have higher risks of certain diseases like HIV (and others!), but also less than half (49%) of trans people have received hormone therapy when more than three fourths (78%) of them want it. Unionization not only secures the healthcare that helps me become who I am, but gives me a community where I can expect support.

Two years ago I was trained by a chapter of Working America (under the AFT), and during my training I encountered people of many backgrounds. Different races, sexualities, and genders came together to fight for people’s material needs. When a community understands that an injury to one is an injury to all, that community is worth fighting for. There is a reason that “Race-baiting, Red-baiting, and Queer-baiting are Anti-Union” is an old labor motto.


This blog post was contributed by Kelli Knipe, graduate employee in Sociology

A Scientist’s Testimonial for Unionization

I’ve been a scientist in industry, government and academe. In all three settings I’ve seen how having the protection of a union works, not only for job security, but in defense of scientific integrity.

 

As a graduate student/instructor, I experienced the lack of a union’s presence in that workplace by way of discriminatory policy in work assignments and compensation. Later, after retiring from government (USEPA) as a university chemistry professor, lack of union protection led to forced retirement, even in the face of excellent student evaluations of my teaching. The real reason for leaving that position was my anticipated publication in the peer-reviewed literature of information about the risks associated with the principal chemical used to fluoridate water supplies…the university employing me had received a large grant from the Oral Health Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, apparently with the stipulation that I be gone after that academic year.

 

After grad school I worked as a research chemist in industry for 16 years, then got into the environmental side of the business. My quite visible outside work with the environmentalist community freaked out management, and I was ordered back to the research bench – no union to fight for me over that retaliatory action. I left shortly afterward for EPA.  

 

That’s all the bad news. The good news is about my experience as a union organizer and leader at EPA. I am one of eight charter members of the union (at first, Local 2050, National Federation of Federal Employees; now Chapter 280, National Treasury Employees Union) that represents scientists, engineers and other professional employees at EPA headquarters.

 

Our union was the driving force behind EPA’s finally promulgating its Principles of Scientific Integrity (after battling the issue for 13 years). We defended the Senior Toxicologist in the Office of Water after he was fired for – as the Administrative Law Judge ruled in the successful lawsuit that followed – refusing to remain silent about fluoride’s ability to produce bone cancer.  We defended a Pesticides Office toxicologist during his struggles to have honest science applied to the toxicity of malathion. We fought for removal of carpet that had injured EPA workers in their offices – and later affected national policy on that subject….all under protections granted us a union officials.

 

There were many, many other instances of our union defending  EPA employees, and – ultimately – the public for whom we worked. A website was created recently by my union brother, Dr. Bob Carton, and I that details some of our work and why we did it. It expressly explains why we chose to organize a labor union rather than a professional association, or something similar that would have had no legal clout. The site remains a work-in-progress, with more examples of our professionals’ union’s successes. Our website had over 6500 visits in April. Come take a look.

 

epaunionhistory.org

 

– J. William Hirzy, PhD

 

A Better Way is Possible: Lessening the Power Disparity Between Faculty and Graduate Employees

This past weekend marked Penn State’s graduation ceremony, which caused me to reflect on my experiences here. Though I do not officially graduate until August, after defending on May 12th, I will have completed all the PhD requirements. This was not an easy feat. Ask any newly minted PhD and they will tell you that their road was marked by struggle, hard work, tears, and, at times, feeling of despair and hopelessness. Nevertheless, we persist, working toward the goal of becoming experts in our chosen fields and disseminating knowledge that will (hopefully) help to better  our society. As I mentioned in an earlier post, as the only black male in my department grad school has been no “crystal stair.” Additionally, I experienced something that can happen to any graduate employee: dealing with an unsupportive and neglectful faculty adviser.

My adviser abandoned me. With just two months before my tentative dissertation defense, he chose to not only step down as my chair, but also as my academic adviser. His departure led another committee member to step down as well. I found myself tasked with rebuilding my committee and re-defending my dissertation proposal. His departure caused me to worry that I would not be able to defend and graduate before beginning my faculty position this coming fall. I felt hopeless, defeated, and above all, confused. Graduate employees and their faculty mentors part ways all the time. In certain scenarios, like if a graduate employee is taking their research in a new direction, it is appropriate for said employee to seek out a more fitting adviser. Occasionally, advisers and advisees have irreconcilable differences and must part ways for the benefit of both parties. In these scenarios, the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial. Regardless of the circumstances, open communication and clear protocol are necessary. I received no communication (to this day I do not know why my adviser abandoned me) nor was there a formal process that my adviser had to go through to drop me as his advisee. In short, I was dropped without any notice, and found myself struggling to reform my committee so that I could defend and graduate in time to start my faculty position this coming fall. The actions of my adviser demonstrated a wanton inconsideration of the wellbeing of someone with considerably less power than him.

That’s what it comes down to. Power. All too often, faculty feel that they have the power to treat their advisees however they see fit and that they are above any punitive actions. A union, however, would even out this power disparity, allowing us to advocate for the mentorship, answers, and consistency that we need from faculty. I am a proud member of CGE and an avid supporter of graduate employee unionization because I believe that we cannot have a university where professors treat their advisees unjustly without fear of recourse. What happened  to me should not happen to anyone.

To this day I still wonder why my adviser chose to abandon me. Is it because he is close to retirement? Is it because he felt that my work was going in a direction that he didn’t agree with? I don’t know, and I perhaps never will. But what I do know is that a better way is possible.
Like many graduate employees, I chose Penn State because it provided the resources and promised the training I needed to become a competent researcher. I did not choose to attend a university where I would experience abuse and neglect from my faculty mentors. And yet, that is exactly what I received. My close friends, colleagues, and informal mentors helped to see me through. It is this type of community a union helps foster. A community that can lead to success in the face of overwhelming adversity.


This blog post was contributed by Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, Sociology and Demography

An International Student’s Guide to Unionization

Can international graduate students unionize?

Yes! Many graduate employee unions include large numbers of international graduate employees, not only as members, but as leaders who advocate for improved working conditions. Benefits of unionization like stable healthcare and summer funding may be of special importance to international graduate student workers.

Will supporting the union affect my visa status?

Unionization will not affect your visa status. All workers on nonimmigrant visas (including student visas) in the United States are able to unionize and are protected by the same laws as US citizens when it comes to speaking up about your rights. This means that you cannot be fired from your position due to your support of the union, and retaliation for any union activity is against the law.  

What have graduate unions done for international students?

A number of graduate student unions have formed committees to address issues specific to international student employees and have won enforceable improvements in their contracts. Below are some of the successes that graduate employee unions have won for international graduate employees.

  • A smoother tax procedure: At Columbia University, graduate employees mobilized to make the  complicated process of filing taxes more manageable for international graduate employees. There, international students experienced a massive delay in receiving tax returns and the University was slow to act. The international student working group of the Graduate Workers of Columbia University mobilized their membership and collected over 1,000 signatures on a petition demanding action and successfully pressured the university to take action.

  • Elimination of visa fees: At the University of Washington, the graduate employees have won language in their union contract that prevents the university from imposing visa fees on international graduate students, including those who are not currently working as graduate assistants. This encompasses any fees associated with visas, including SEVIS fees. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, graduate workers utilized the union grievance procedure (see below) to argue that forcing international students to pay fees that US citizens do not pay was discriminatory. The decision was upheld by a third-party arbitrator and the university was ordered to refund all students who had paid the fee.

  • Expedited grievance procedures for unjust terminations: For international students whose visas are tied to their academic program status, being forced out of a program may be especially devastating and often means leaving the country. The union grievance procedure is a formal process that allows workers who have been unjustly terminated to fight back in a timely way before having to leave the US. Graduate employees also may request union representation during the grievance process, which means that they do not have to navigate the process alone. Graduate students at the University of Connecticut have negotiated such protections, and postdoctoral scholars have won expedited grievance procedures in their contract at UMass Amherst.  

  • Access for undocumented graduate students: Graduate Students at the University of California have also won protections and equal opportunity guarantees for undocumented graduate student workers in their union contracts, such as equal access to teaching assistant and graduate student instructor positions and equal opportunity in career development support.

  • Influenced US immigration policy beyond the university: Through our collective power, graduate worker unions have had a powerful voice in shaping US immigration policies that directly affect international graduate students. The graduate student union at Columbia helped protect the the 17 month Optional Professional Training (OPT) program for STEM graduates (which exists in addition to the 12 month OPT program) by submitting comments to the Department of Homeland Security. This is the primary way that international graduate students secure work authorization in the US after graduation and before moving to another visa category, such as an H1-B. Graduate worker unions also helped block the recent discriminatory muslim ban by filing documents with the courts in Washington State, which led to a district court decision that was key in overturning the ban at the federal level. Graduate student unions at the University of California and at the University of Washington have also played an active role in mobilizing for DREAM Act legislation at the state level.

What can a graduate employee union do for international graduate students here at Penn State?

Many international students here on campus were recently affected by an abrupt and confusing change in travel policies after the initial executive order. In response, President Barron vaguely advised all international members of the campus community not to travel. At the University of Washington, the graduate worker union demanded that any such changes be subject to bargaining, meaning that all graduate workers would have a voice in determining policies and their impact. A graduate employee union at Penn State could protect international graduate students’ legal rights and be a platform from which they can advocate for a more welcoming Penn State.

 

Additional Information:

 

Disputed Authorship

In a recent letter to the Penn State community, President Eric Barron wrote that those in the administration “do not believe a collective bargaining agreement with a union—which is designed to serve the interests of a collective whole and the union itself, rather than individual students—could ever best serve the needs of our graduate student.” I disagree with President Barron. My individual needs were served by my graduate employee union during my time as a graduate student at The University of California.

I was not actively involved in my graduate union. Like my car insurance, I only thought about it when my boring friend in the insurance industry or my boring friend involved in my graduate union told me about their boring day. Fortunately for me, this boring friend encouraged me to approach my graduate union about an authorship dispute I was having with my advisor.

I had performed experiments that were the primary component of a manuscript our lab was preparing for publication. After reviewing the manuscript, I realized that my name was not included in the author list. Concerned, I approached my advisor. My advisor’s response was that I merely “assisted” with these experiments. Besides, there were already too many authors on the manuscript. That never looks good. Days after bringing my concern to my graduate union (thanks to the advice of my boring friend), I was included as an author on the disputed manuscript.

The UC system offers some of the most competitive and well-funded graduate and professional positions in the country. As a graduate employee in the UC system, I was often reminded of this fact by my peers and faculty mentors. I was also reminded that my individual needs were being served by my graduate union.

President Barron also wrote that, “graduate student unionization has the potential to impact not only current students at Penn State, but also students for decades to come and the community as a whole.” In this regard, I agree with President Barron. A graduate employee union has the potential to benefit current and future students of Penn State for decades to come just like my graduate student union benefited me.

– Graduate Employee, College of Agricultural Sciences