Facts, Not Fear: Fixing The ‘Blank Slate’ Deception

In a recent interview, CGE leadership expressed hopes that Penn State would respect the democratic process and maintain a neutral stance on unionization. Unfortunately, some of the information that’s been put out by administration is – as we have previously pointed out – unfortunately not neutral. In the lab and the library, us graduate workers base our thinking on factual evidence and objective data, unencumbered by emotion or bias; in the classroom, we teach our students to do the same. If Penn State wishes to respect the process, they must ensure that the information they distribute passes the same muster we would expect in the course of our jobs, but this is precisely what they have chosen to not do.

The administration’s “unionization FAQ” is a repeat offender on this front. One particular element of the language is particularly troubling, because frankly – it’s incorrect and threatening:

Phrases like “ground zero” and “blank slate” are disappointing to see here – not just because they’re virtually copied-and-pasted from the standard-issue unionbusting playbook – but because in fact, the exact opposite is true. Pennsylvania labor law (Act 195, available here) is quite clear on this point: during the unionization process, employers are not permitted to make unilateral changes to conditions of employment, including wages and benefits. Penn State will be obligated to honor our existing terms of employment until a new contract is negotiated with our union.  

All this talk of blank slates seems to be sorely mistaken. Presumably, we’re supposed to think that unionization would somehow place our current employment conditions in jeopardy. But why permit such misinformation? Who benefits from this kind of confusion? Unfortunately, the answer to this is quite clear: the administration. The status quo favors them, because right now, they hold all the power and they’d prefer not to share. If administrators can trick us into thinking that blank slate negotiations are real and that unions are scary, they won't have to raise stipends, guarantee good healthcare, look the other way while some of us work 40 hours per week and get paid for 20, or give up the ability to change the conditions of our employment at their whimsy.

But with a union, we’d have a say on these sorts of issues, and we know that this kind of input works out pretty well for graduate workers. A 2013 paper in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review found that "union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom." Many of PSU’s administrators were once academics like us, so it’s unfortunate that they’d ignore peer-reviewed information in favor of fearmongering untruths just because giving us a say might cost them some money.  

It’s in the best interest of PSU’s graduate workers that everybody has access to accurate and fair-minded information about unionization. Indeed, the speedy, fair, and democratic election which we’re hoping for depends on nothing less. CGE is happy to clear up these misunderstandings, but it’s unfortunate that we should have to.

Work-In at Old Main

Without graduate labor, Penn State as we know it would not function. Graduate workers teach many of the courses necessary for an undergraduate degree. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to get a Bachelor’s degree at Penn State without having at least one graduate instructor. We also work on grants that bring millions of dollars to the university. Yet, often our work is taken for granted or belittled.

Because of this, instead of working in our offices, today we are assembling quietly in Old Main to grade papers, collect data, respond to students, write or edit proposals, or work on any of the other crucial tasks that grad employees tackle every day. We invite any graduate workers and supporters of graduate workers to join us. Remember: Penn State works because we work!

What is the Truth About Stipends?

Over the next few months, you can expect to hear a lot about the wonderful benefits that we get from Penn State. They’ll claim that once you add tuition into the stipend that we are making nearly $50,000 on average, even though we can’t use tuition waivers to pay rent or buy groceries. Or that they’ve benchmarked us against other schools and so we shouldn’t be worried. One of their favorite talking points, however, is that we’ve actually seen lots of increases in stipends over the last few years.

sadfReading this, you’d think we’re roling in cash. But how much truth is there to this?

We looked at stipend info from 1996/1997 up until this year (although we were unable to find information from 2006 to 2007). In real dollars, there has only been an average 0.5% annual increase in stipends. This means that over the last 5 years, the average increase is actually only about 1.7%. Even then, this increase trumpeted by the university ignores the fact that at least some of the larger increases – such as from 2013/2014 to 2014/2015 – came because there were increased costs placed on graduate workers (in the form of increased health care costs).

The point here is simple: not only have our raises been much smaller than reported, that small raise was immediately gobbled back up. Even as graduate workers’ importance to teaching and researching continues to increase, we've barely seen any change in how Penn State values it.

This is particularly disappointing because many graduate employees are struggling to get by. Even the Graduate School acknowledges that stipends in some colleges are insufficient, but as with any bureaucracy of this size, action has been slow, ineffectual, and have come about only after tireless advocacy by the graduate employees themselves.

Until we have an equal seat at the table with administration, it’s all too easy for them to throw us on the chopping block. This is especially urgent given the upcoming budget challenges for Penn State. In responding to a question about tuition freeze at the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, January 24th, President Barron discussed these challenges. In particular he was concerned that years of ignoring maintenance on the physical plant would mean that ‘hard decisions’ would be made. Without a voice in the decision-making process, freezing – or worse, cutting – our pay and benefits could easily be one of those “hard decisions.” If administrators were faced with a salary cut, they’d never take it lying down – neither should you.

Take Action – #DontBanME

Today we join the National Association of Professional Graduate Students in asking our members to call Congress and tell them to aggressively oppose President Trump’s executive order. 17,000 students at universities and colleges nationwide now live in fear of never being able to finish if they decide to go home to visit family or friends. Several hundred of these students are our friends and colleagues here at Penn State. We ask all of our members to take a few minutes out of their day to call Senator Toomey, Senator Casey, and Representative Thompson.

We’ve put together a script for you to use and will be on campus by Paterno Library today from 11am to 1pm asking others to do the same.

We are CGE and we ARE Penn State

The Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) has been a long time in the making. For years, Penn State graduate employees have faced problems. After a unilateral decision was made about our health care benefits about four years go, graduate employees decided that working together was the only way to fix the challenges in our community. This movement has always been by graduate employees, and for graduate employees.

Penn State’s administrators know this, but they claim otherwise. Since we’ve begun this organizing campaign, the Graduate School at Penn State has released two memos to faculty, instructing them how to talk to graduate employees about unionization (problems with the memo itself have already been discussed in other venues and edited by us to correct misinformation).

The university’s letter — undoubtedly written by a very expensive consultant paid for what’s euphemistically termed “union avoidance” — starts out with a lie, claiming that “there is currently a campaign underway by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to unionize graduate student assistants here at Penn State.” This isn’t true. PSEA, a union committed to protecting educators across our state, has provided help at CGE’s direction. Our campaign has always been member-led, with graduate employees leading the way.

What they don't want faculty, staff, and members of our community to know is that this campaign is led by graduate employees because we know we need to work together to fix what the administration won't. By trying to portray this as an outside organization, they're deliberately stoking fears of additional bureaucracy or outside interference.

But it's not true, and it's a standard anti-union tactic. What they don't want you to know is that what we're proposing is common across the United States, in some of the best universities in the country. All graduate employees want is the chance to come together and bargain as equals with administration for the betterment of our community.

That’s scary to them; they don't want to lose power over their employees, whether they're faculty, staff, or graduate employees. As long as they're afraid of losing their power, they'll keep up their campaign of "alternative facts.”

It’s evident with just a brief look at our photos, or the people in attendance at our events, who CGE is. The Penn State administration doesn’t want to acknowledge the truth about CGE: this is our union.

Stand Against the Executive Order

We ask everyone to sign this open letter calling on Penn State to protect international students and workers against President Trump's executive order. There are immediate steps that university administration must take, including:

  • Accommodations to protect academic progression for affected individuals
  • Ensure continued funding and employment status for those targeted. 
  • Provide legal resources as necessary
  • Offer mental health support in order to those working through this very stressful time. 
  • Communicate with the Penn State community about the value and contributions of affected populations.

What the FICA?

For many graduate workers, their lives are filled with acronyms. This might come from their work (for me it is BVAR, EPN, SMO, ERGM, TERGM, GERGM…), or from their academic affiliations (APSA, MPSA, SPSA, ASA…), or from their day-to-day work in the University itself (GPSA, LA, GAPS, WGSO…). One of the terms we’ve heard floating around a lot recently is FICA Tax, or the Federal Insurance Contribution Act Tax. This is a tax that you might notice coming on and off your paycheck as you follow the graduate worker lifecycle of school stipend to summer stipend. As it stands now, our 10 month stipend is exempt from FICA tax, giving us a cool savings of 7%.

We have heard concerns that if we unionize we might lose our exemption. These concerns come straight from the Penn State Graduate School, which is happy to spread this misinformation on their refurbished graduate funding FAQ (if you go back to before the unionization campaign started you’ll notice a much more sparse website, with no mention of FICA). This is not the first time that we’ve found Penn State Graduate School misconstruing reality (see our edited version of their memo they sent out to faculty for several pages of examples).

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So, is it true? Does unionization change our status and make us ineligible for FICA exemption? No. In fact, unionized grads at University of Florida, University of Michigan, Temple University, University of California, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Chicago, Southern Illinois University, and Montana State University have remained exempt from FICA status during the school year.

If it’s not true, why would the graduate school claim it? Because it’s a textbook tactic for career higher education administrators faced with graduate employees that want change. The logic is simple: if they create enough uncertainty and fear about graduate employees working together in a union, administrations can maintain the status quo. Truth and facts aren’t their allies.

Sadly, even though our community is built on learning and the pursuit of knowledge, administrators would rather use “alternative facts” than give graduate employees the information they need to decide for themselves. We deserve better than that.

Spring Update: Webster’s Open House & Other News

The Spring semester is upon us, and we hope it finds you well. We're hoping to have a vote this semester, but here's what else we've been up to. 

Growing Fast!
We're growing fast, so now is the time to get involved! Join us at Webster's this Wednesday at 3 PM as we kick off the semester with some free coffee and discussion. The Trump administration could bringing big changes to the ACA and higher education. At the same time, Penn State is negotiating yet another new health insurance plan, which makes this a good moment for us to come together as a community.

Penn State announces a Grad Assistant Task Force (but we know nothing about it)
Right before winter break, the Graduate School announced the creation of a task force to learn more about the graduate student climate. But who will participate? How will they be selected? What will this task force do? Frankly, we don't know, but based on what we do know, we fear that this is a mere bureaucratic exercise. We've issued an official response on the matter, which you can read here.

CGE votes to support Sanctuary Campus petition
The CGE voted overwhelmingly (92% to 8%) in favor of a petition calling on PSU's administration to protect and provide services to undocumented students and others at risk in this changing climate. With this vote, CGE joined other PSU groups (including UPUA) and graduate unions at other schools, including the recently unionized UConn GEU-UAW.

A Holiday Surprise from the Grad School

Today the Graduate School announced the creation of a task force to assess “climate for graduate assistants at Penn State.” This task force came as a surprise to much of the graduate and professional student leadership at Penn State, since they were only nominally consulted in the process of establishing it. The Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) feels that both our organization and the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) could be strong resources in the university’s efforts to understand and improve graduate life, but frankly, we’ve been left in the dark on a lot of issues.

We ask that the graduate school respond to the following questions as soon as possible so that we are able to be as helpful as possible:

  1. From our understanding, the task force participants have already been selected. Is this true? If not, how can one become a part of this task force?

    1. Will the selection reflect the great diversity of the PSU graduate worker and graduate faculty population? Will graduate workers at commonwealth campuses be represented?

    2. Why was there not an open call for graduate assistants to participate?

    3. Which faculty members will participate? Are all departments and colleges represented equally?

  2. How will the task force approach addressing its broad concerns? Will this focus be narrowed eventually? Is this task force going to tackle concerns of graduate and professional students, or is it only focused on graduate assistants?

  3. What is the timeline of the task force? Is there a plan for public input throughout its duration?

  4. Will the findings of this task force be made public? When, and in what ways, will it be made accessible to the people it aims to address?

  5. Why were none of the formal bodies of graduate students consulted in developing this task force? Neither the GPSA nor the Graduate Council currently have formal access to the task force, nor formal representation on the task force.

  6. Will this task force make public more information about the status of graduate assistants including: the number of graduate assistants (both total and by college), graduate assistant demographic information (race, gender, nativity status, etc.),  a breakdown of stipends (including the minimum stipends), breakdowns on graduate assistantships that are research focused verseus teaching focused, the number of courses with a graduate assistant as the instructor of record, and other pertinent information to judge graduate assistant climate?

We believe that CGE and PSU Administration can find common ground in their shared desire to provide a good working environment for graduate and professional students, which is why the mystery and confusion surrounding this task force is concerning. Without answers to these questions and broad involvement in the process, we fear that this task force will be a merely bureaucratic affair, unable to address itself to the day-to-day concerns faced by PSU graduate workers.

Finally, if administration desires to gather information on the graduate student climate, we are happy to share the results of our survey again, which showed broad dissatisfaction with many facets of current graduate worker life, which can be put succinctly as “overworked and underappreciated.” These pressing concerns have lead graduate workers across the nation to unionize, and we feel that attempts to address them can only succeed through a commitment to transparency and adequate representation.

 

CGE Votes to Support Sanctuary Campus Petition

The Coalition of Graduate Employees has voted to support the recently circulated Sanctuary Campus Petition. The policies outlined in the petition are critical for protecting some of the most vulnerable attendees of the university, whether they be graduate workers or the undergraduates they teach. We especially applaud the call to increase training for all Penn State employees on how to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students and others at risk in this changing climate.

The CGE voted overwhelmingly to support this resolution 92% to 8%, joining groups not only across Penn State (including UPUA), but also graduate worker unions at other schools, including the recently unionized UConn GEU-UAW. This reflects a growing sense of solidarity between graduate workers, students and faculty.