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


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





Student and spouse





Student and child





Student and children





Family (child)





Family (children)





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!

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:


Graduate Unions Across the Country

CGE at Penn State joins a long and illustrious history of graduate employees demanding a say in their working conditions. In Pennsylvania alone, we join Temple University, who won their case at the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and were officially declared employees in 2001. As we continue striving for representation, better working conditions, and solidarity at Penn State, we’d like to take a look at the victories of other successful graduate unions across the country.

Contracts (University of Iowa)

  • Graduate employee union contracts cover a number of benefits for their members, and the graduate employees at the University of Iowa’s benefits have increased substantially since their union formed in 1996. In their first contract in 1996, they won a base salary increase, legal grievance procedure, health care plan, and clear policies regarding sick leave, family illness leave, bereavement leave, and time off over breaks between semesters. In the following years, they bargained for affordable dental care, mental health care, transparent summer pay rates, and legal representation in cases of workplace discrimination. The contract also protected salaries and health insurance against the nationwide university budget cuts in 2002-2003. Since then, their contract has continuously evolved to better protect and serve graduate employees.

Health Care (University of Missouri)

Representation in the Case of Sexual Harassment (University of Connecticut)

  • The graduate employee union at the University of Connecticut recently saw a success with regards to legal representation in a case of sexual harassment. After going through the university sanctioned process to report sexual harassment from a professor, one graduate student was told that she could not be believed because there was not sufficient evidence. Lacking both university and departmental support, the woman could not imagine continuing grad school, nor did she have job prospects if she were to quit. She turned to the graduate employee union. The union provided legal support, an outside grievance process, a third party for mediation, and the solidarity necessary for the woman to continue her studies at UConn.

Tuition Waiver Protection (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

  • After first seeing  their tuition waivers threatened in 2009, the unionized graduate employees of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign won protection for tuition waivers in 2013, guaranteeing that graduate employees won't need to pay for the education necessary to teach and research.

Recognition of Labor (University of Michigan)

  • The graduate employee union at the University of Michigan agreed on a contract with the university just last week. After three sit-ins and months of negotiation, the graduate employees have won a number of benefits including pay for the labor they do for the university’s diversity programs and an annual wage increase of 3.35% for the next three years.

These victories show that solidarity works in demanding fair treatment from the university. CGE continues to celebrate the successes of our fellow graduate employee organizations, and we hope to see similar victories for Penn State in the future. As united graduate employees across the US have already demonstrated, a better university is possible.

If you have any questions or want to get involved, come to our Coffee Hours at Websters on Wednesday from 3-6 or one of our open meetings every other Tuesday at 6 in the Municipal Building.

Demystifying Pennsylvania Graduate Union Legislation

Graduate employee unions are not new to the state of Pennsylvania. The path to graduate unionization, as cleared by Temple University’s legal precedent in 2000, is a democratic one. Here, we will demystify what that process should look like and what has changed since the university decided to block that path.

The process:

  • A group of interested graduate employees (CGE in this case) collects cards with signatures from other graduate employees showing interest in holding a vote for a union.

  • CGE submits those cards to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), who confirms the card count.

  • The PLRB holds a conference call with the organizing graduate body and the university to identify who will be in the union.

  • If both parties are in agreement, it moves on to an election. If there is a disagreement, it goes to a hearing in front of the PLRB.


As many of you may know, CGE completed the card collection in February and filed with PLRB for a vote. The conference call was held on April 6th. During this call, the university challenged the fact that we are employees, thus challenging our right to form a union. The next step will be a hearing at the PLRB. When Temple University took the matter to the PLRB in 2000, the board ruled unequivocally that “graduate assistants are ‘employees’ […] and may properly exercise collective bargaining rights in relation to wages, hours and working conditions.” After the PLRB ruled in their favor, Temple graduate employees voted 94% to 6% in favor of unionization. We anticipate that this precedent will work in our favor.

We are frustrated that the university is delaying the process. We hoped that the many cards demonstrating graduate employee interest in a democratic vote would be enough to show the university that we can — and should — decide for ourselves whether a union is right for graduate employees at Penn State. In accordance with our values of openness and solidarity, we at CGE will continue respecting our fellow graduate employees’ ability to make decisions by demystifying the legal process and providing resources for learning about unionization.

If you have any further questions, please join us at our open meeting on Tuesday, April 11th at 6PM in the Municipal building (room 220) or at our coffee hours on Wednesday, April 18th from 3-6 at Websters. More information about these events can be found here and on our facebook page.

Is This What Open Dialogue Looks Like?

In a disappointing phone call on April 6th to determine the right of graduate assistants to organize between the Penn State administration, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), we learned that Penn State plans to double down on their argument that graduate employees are NOT employees. They plan to challenge the legal precedent classifying graduate assistants as employees and allowing them to unionize. In 2001, Temple University graduate employees voted to unionize. When the PLRB ruled in support of this right to vote, administration at Temple chose to accept the decision rather than continue obstructing their graduate employees’ rights.

By challenging this decision in court, Penn State is making an aggressive and costly move to prevent graduate employees from having a fair voice in their workplace. Essentially, Penn State administration is attempting to overturn a well established legal precedent for the sake of further delaying our right to vote on a union. This week, the Penn State community received emails from both President Barron and Graduate Dean Younken. Both expressed an explicit desire to maintain open dialogue with graduate employees. As graduate employees looking for a seat at the table where administrators make decisions about our lives and our workplaces, we could not agree more. We are disappointed that administration continues to refuse to recognize our labor by acknowledging our status as employees.

Further, we are frustrated that the administration does not respect our right to decide amongst ourselves by holding a vote on unionization. After a year of campaigning and talking to graduate employees, we collected hundreds of signatures declaring support for a vote on unionization. As Dean Younken wrote in her email, “as scholars pursuing advanced degrees, your training emphasizes drawing conclusions based upon facts, and evidence-based decision-making.” We hope that the administration begins to respect our ability to research, our intellectual labor, and our right to a democratic process by ceasing to obstruct our path to a vote.

Going forward, CGE remains committed to strengthening our organization by continuing to foster relationships with other graduate employees and employee advocacy groups on campus. Though we are frustrated that the administration continues to deny our right to a free and fair election to unionize and has chosen to take the drastic step to obstruct this democratic process, we will continue to foster solidarity amongst our fellow graduate employees. As always, in keeping with our value of open dialogue, CGE remains willing to meet with President Barron to discuss how we can proceed in an amicable and mutually respectful manner.

Reply All: “Graduate Student Union”

"Penn State's valued relationship with its graduate students: President Eric Barron's letter to the University community. April 3, 2017."

What an appropriate choice of date. Three years ago today, many of those fighting for union representation of graduate employees were on the Old Main lawn, rallying to protect affordable health care for students.

"A group seeking to represent all graduate assistants and fellows at Penn State filed a petition on Feb. 22, 2017, for union representation with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB)."

A group of graduate employees delivered the signatures of graduate employees in a petition to allow us to vote on whether to be represented by a union. Specifically, we sought out the Pennsylvania State Education Association for their experience representing educators and the resources they’ve made available to the student body leadership. CGE remains, first and foremost, a group of Penn State graduate employees.

"Universities are marketplaces of free ideas and expression, and I encourage an open dialogue about graduate student unionization at Penn State. As we begin to discuss these issues, I want to convey a few thoughts to the Penn State community about the University’s view on how graduate student unionization impacts Penn State's academic mission."

Only university administration can disseminate information through means such as mass emails to the entire Penn State  community (like this message), top headlines in Penn State News (like  this morning’s), or official graduate school FAQs and email addresses (see below). If they choose to leverage this power in attempt to sway a union election, they are not promoting open dialogue, but are instead disseminating one-sided information. Despite our having an active web page and social media presence, there are no links to the CGE or even mention of us by name in the email. Further, President Barron’s refusal to meet with us certainly does not constitute the “open dialogue” he claims to encourage.

"As a public research university, Penn State is committed to the successful intellectual and professional development of its graduate students. We view our graduate students as students first and foremost. They are our mentees, future scholars and, potentially, our future colleagues. Penn State does not oppose the concept of unions or the unionization of employees. However, the University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. For this reason, Penn State opposes this petition for representation with the PLRB."

Here, Penn State runs counter to both the National and Pennsylvania Labor Relations Boards who have declared that graduate assistants are both students and employees because they do work, get paid, and contribute substantially to the mission of the university. The university claims to know the needs of graduate employees better than the employees themselves. Furthermore, Penn State is not respecting the right of graduate employees to deliberate and decide amongst themselves by remaining neutral.

"Graduate students are integral to the Penn State educational experience, and 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. I hope everyone within the Penn State community will take the opportunity to become informed about the topic of graduate student unionization. Many resources are available, including those on"

We do hope that a graduate employee union will impact future students at Penn State. With union support, future graduate employees might hold some power in the decision-making processes that directly affect their lives such as changes in health care, stipends, child care, teaching loads, and transportation. We also hope that a union would make graduate work at Penn State accessible and welcoming for all students regardless of their individual needs. The resources provided by the administration, however, do not acknowledge these benefits of graduate employee solidarity, but rather present a biased view of what unions would mean for administration.

"We are proud of our graduate students and the numerous ways in which they contribute to Penn State and the community. When aspiring graduate students apply for admission to Penn State, they are accepted based on their outstanding academic achievements, their scholarly and professional interests and, as a hallmark of graduate education, their individuality. Our programs are tailored to the individual students within them, and our faculty work collaboratively with their students to advise and support them in their learning and research endeavors. During my time as a graduate student, the most seminal experiences of my graduate career were interactions with faculty as mentors and collaborators."

President Barron chooses not to mention the fact that an increasing portion of the university's labor is conducted by graduate employees and lecturers. Departments are quite intentional in recruiting students who will meet the needs of their labs/courses/etc. While they do not recognize our status as employees, we make up much of the labor force as teachers and researchers. Like administration, we also believe in the benefit of healthy collaboration with faculty. Solidarity amongst graduate employees would ensure that these relationships with faculty remain safe and fair while maintaining their intellectual rigor.

"While we understand that there may be issues upon which we can improve, we are committed to doing so in ways that best protect the varying needs of our diverse graduate student population. We 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 students or the University. In fact, we believe it could impede the academic and mentoring relationships Penn State has with its graduate students."

The university ignores the fundamental principles of unionization: fair representation, equal bargaining rights, and protections for individual employees that do not rely on the voluntary cooperation of the institution in admitting and remedying their faults. They assume that a collective organization made up of graduate employees will represent the individual interests of those employees less adequately than the administration employing them, while insinuating that organizers are some sort of outside interest group, which is not the case. Furthermore, the university ignores the body of evidence that shows that graduate unions improve the work environment for individual members.

"If anyone has questions or concerns about unionization or any other matter impacting our graduate students, please visit or reach out to


Eric J. Barron, President"

We at CGE believe that you deserve open dialogue with your administration. We have provided resources here and on our blog to better understand the slanted information that the university has provided on these sites. We would also encourage you to do your own research (one of the things graduate employees do best) if you wish. And if you do have questions about CGE, we’d love to hear from you.

Unions Secure Academic Freedoms

Academic freedom is one of the most valued rights of academics, whether graduate employees, postdoctoral researchers, or faculty. Strong protections for free inquiry are essential to the mission of a University; when researchers and scholars face reprisal for or restriction upon their right to make controversial arguments, it’s a damage to all of us who benefit from academic debates.

Given the aforementioned importance of academic freedom, it’s no surprise that academic administrators have raised the question of academic freedom in the debate over unionization. In the Columbia case, Ivy League schools jointly filed an amicus brief claiming that unionization intruded upon academic freedom.

Amicus Brief


It’s an argument that has some resonance. Academics strongly value academic freedom, and wish to ensure that it’s protected. Hearing that it might be interfered with is rightly concerning.

So what are the merits to this argument?

Tellingly, the Ivy League schools were unable to find a single concrete example of unions interfering in academic freedoms over the course of the 40+ year history of graduate unions, raising serious doubt about the validity of the claim. In fact, the contracts of faculty and graduate employee unions tell an altogether different story.

Pennsylvania State System Faculty Contract

Pennsylvania State System Faculty Contract


University of Montana Graduate Employee Contract

University of Montana Graduate Employee Contract

Contracts can provide stronger guarantees of academic freedom. This is demonstrated by Montana’s extension of faculty rights to graduate employees, and by the excerpt from APSCUF’s extensive contract language guaranteeing broad academic freedoms. It’s also demonstrated by peer-reviewed research. Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations produced a landmark study, affirmed by the NLRB’s decision in the Columbia case, that found that “[unionized] graduate students report equal or better levels of academic freedom as do those who are not [unionized]”. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that graduate students represented by unions feel equally or more secure in their academic freedom than those who are not. 

Our union believes bargained and enforceable protections for academic freedom are sorely needed; one need only look at the AAUP list of censured colleges and universities to see that administrators are all too willing to violate principles of academic freedom when it suits their convenience. Those protections can only be truly guaranteed by collective action and bargaining together.