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).


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.

Title IX Panel

The Coalition of Graduate Employees and Women’s Studies Graduate Organization are hosting a panel discussion on Title IX at Penn State. Paul Apicella, Penn State's Title IX Coordinator, and Peggy Lorah, Director of the Center for Women Students at Penn State will be answering questions about what Title IX means at Penn State. Anne Ard, Director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, will also be making a special guest appearance! We hope that this panel will illuminate the resources that are available for those facing gender-based/sexual harassment or discrimination at Penn State and Centre County.

The panel will be Monday, November 14 at 6pm in Freeman Auditorium in the HUB. You can find out more, and RSVP at the Facebook event.


CGE stands in solidarity with APSCUF

Yesterday faculty and coaches at 14 of Pennsylvania’s public universities went on strike. This is a historic moment: it is the first strike in the history of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), which has had legal bargaining authority for faculty at these schools since 1973, and for coaches since 2000. This strike comes after faculty and coaches worked for over a year under an expired contract. Today the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) would like to express our support for APSCUF during this time. Although we know that a strike is never the first course of action, it is sometimes necessary when dealing with recalcitrant leadership who will not bargain in good faith to develop an equitable contract.

The faculty and coaches of PASSHE should not be forced into a contract that requires longer hours and less pay. As part of previous negotiations, APSCUF members had already accepted tightening their belts by taking on more health care costs, yet they were told this was not enough. We are especially alarmed at attempts to create a new lower salary scale for adjunct faculty, which would leave them even further behind.

In supporting this strike, we join many other organizations of students and educators that have already expressed their support:

The CGE stands in solidarity with the faculty and coaches of PASSHE in their fight for a more equitable higher education system

CGE Update: What do you want in a contract? Who is CGE? And Why unionize?


We are almost ready to vote! We need to hear what sort of contract you want!
Our card drive is entering the home stretch! Help us get a better idea of what graduate workers are most concerned about so please take a moment now and fill it out.

What can unions do for you? Here are a few examples from other universities:

  • Solid training before new graduate employees enter the classroom, including a hand in creating training. (U of Mich)
  • Graduate worker input on class sizes, clear policies on maximums (U of Mich)
  • Graduate worker representation in an array of university level decision making bodies: child care issues (U of Mich), as well as health and safety (U Conn)
  • Paid leave (U Conn, U of Iowa)
  • Clear rules on extended leaves (including medical and parental leave) (U Conn)
  • Increased access to parking (compared to undergraduates) (U Conn)

Why do unions work for PSU? See the responses:
If you haven’t seen
our new facebook page, check it out and see the reasons PSU grad workers want a union. Here are some of our favorites:

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Who the hell are we anyway?
The CGE has always been a student-run effort. You can always come to our happy hours or our events to find out, but PSU still seems confused about this. Read our explanation here!


Who started the Penn State organizing campaign?

The Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) formally started with about 20 or 30 graduate workers seeking greater job security and a voice for graduate employees on issues affecting them. However, it has been a long time in the making. For nearly three years now, graduate workers have devoted their limited free time to meet and talk with other graduate workers about improving Penn State and the process of unionization. This ad hoc group became the CGE a year and a half ago, and CGE approached PSEA about a year ago for help. Since then, many have joined us – graduate employees have attended our event or signed cards in support while faculty members have signed our letter of support. This has happened due to countless hours of volunteer work by graduate employees who believe that unionization works for graduate workers and for universities.

So, you can imagine our surprise when we discovered that Penn State seems to be confused as to who is organizing their graduate employees. At the beginning of this year, the Graduate School at Penn State re-released a memo on faculty interactions with graduate workers during this organizing campaign. Though the memo is the same as the one emailed to faculty and staff last year, a new letter was attached to the front, which you can view here (problems with the memo itself have already been discussed in other venues)

The university’s letter claims that “there is currently a campaign underway by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to unionize graduate student assistants here at Penn State,” yet CGE has always been the driving force behind this campaign. We feel that clarity is vital on this point: though PSEA has provided us with expertise, legal advice, and some resources, it has always been a democratically run effort, by and for Penn State graduate employees.

In light of this, it is undeniably strange that the university’s letter does not mention CGE at all. We have met with the administration and Graduate School leadership to discuss our reasons for organizing, so it is stranger yet that the memo itself mentions CGE only once, while mentioning PSEA 37 times. We can only assume that this is a simple mistake on their part, so we have made edits to better reflect the reality of the organizing drive – namely, one that is graduate employee-led and graduate employee-focused. A brief look at our photos, or attendance at one of our events should suffice to dispel any further doubt. A copy of our revised letter and memo can be found here, so please feel free to share it with any faculty that have questions about the campaign. We are grateful for the opportunity to clear up this misunderstanding.



Come to our Labor Day Picnic for Penn State workers

The Coalition of Graduate Employees wants to recognize ALL workers this Labor Day. Come join us to celebrate the important work done by the graduate employees, faculty, and staff who keep Penn State running. All are invited, so please share this with everyone who works at Penn State or appreciates their labor!

We will be providing sandwich fixings, plates, utensils, and some sides and desserts. Contributing a dish to share would be appreciated, but is not necessary.

In the event of rain, we'll move the picnic to the first floor of the HUB.


CGE Labor Day online

Onward State: Survey Shows Graduate Workers Go Above And Beyond Level Of Compensation

Check out the article written by CGE member (and former Co-President) Anne Whitesell in Onward State:

“How do you keep a work-life balance?”

The question was posed to me recently at a Q & A panel for incoming graduate students. I looked to my colleagues around me to see if any of them were prepared to answer the question. Instead, we just laughed. “I don’t,” one of us finally admitted, and the rest of us nodded our heads in agreement.

It turns out we’re not the only ones. In early August, the Coalition of Graduate Employees(CGE) at Penn State fielded a survey asking graduate employees about the compensation they receive and the amount of time they put into their assistantships. Most graduate assistants at Penn State, and the majority of the 199 survey respondents, have half-time assignments that require 20 hours of work per week. This work – which the administration recognizes as “vital to Penn State’s mission of teaching, research, and service” – ranges from assisting faculty in their research to serving as teaching assistants in large introductory seminars to teaching their own courses. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) with half-time assistantships reported working more than 20 hours per week on average.

Don't forget to share it with your friends and colleagues!