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

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

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

Letter from a Lion

My Dear Nittany Lions,

Greetings from a Mizzou Tiger and proud former Penn Stater. My name is Natalie McCabe. I attended the Schreyer Honors College and received my BA in Theatre and Minor in International Arts at PSU in 2007. The same year, my husband, Jean-Gerald Tartiere, graduated with his MFA in Acting from Penn State’s acclaimed School of Theatre. I am now at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I am a doctoral candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies. I am also a proud department representative to the Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW).

I am writing to encourage you to support a graduate student union at Penn State. My husband’s three years in State College were wonderful overall, with a supportive faculty and staff, teaching assistantship, and health insurance. I would like you to also have that same invaluable experience and solid guarantees for all of the hard work you and we all do as graduate student-workers.

Here at the University of Missouri, my department’s faculty and staff are equally supportive, but I have dealt with significant issues that a union could most certainly have addressed or even prevented. During my first pregnancy, I lived in university-run graduate student housing in an apartment complex called University Village. Despite knowing the dangerous structural problems of the unit in this university housing complex, the university continued to allow graduate students and their families such as myself and my husband to live there… until a walkway partially collapsed, killing a firefighter attempting to evacuate the occupants of that building. I was forced to move in my third trimester during the end of my first school year. When that apartment complex was torn down, so was the only Student Parent Daycare Center on campus. A similar daycare option was never reopened. A graduate student union could have worked to ensure strict safety standards in that apartment complex and the continued presence of an affordable Student Parent Daycare Center on campus.

During my second pregnancy, the university took away graduate student health insurance abruptly, with little warning. The next business day, I miscarried and spent far too much time at home before seeking medical care due to my new lack of insurance. A graduate student union could have worked to ensure maintenance of the health insurance that was promised in our offer letters.

I urge you to support a graduate student union so that your benefits are never threatened. So that your stipends and compensation are at an appropriate level for your work load. So that you can focus on your classwork and research, not on whether or not you can afford your rent, childcare, or a doctor’s visit. Continue to help “Happy Valley” live up to its name because, ultimately, We Are Penn State and should remain proud to be so, together.

Sincerely,
Natalie McCabe

Smoothing the Stair

Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

-Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes

 

To borrow language from Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son, life as a Penn State graduate employee “ain’t been no crystal stair.” As a black, gay, first-generation PhD student enrolled in a predominantly white institution, I have encountered both the general hardships experienced by most (if not all) graduate employees as well as specific barriers brought on by my race and sexuality. If it were not for the support and sense of solidarity I have drawn from my close friends and family, I would have failed.

My training in sociology makes me fully aware of the power of a supportive network in helping individuals succeed. I am also aware that for many graduate employees of color in a predominantly white institution, these networks may simply not exist. Indeed, for all five years of my enrollment, I have been the only black male graduate employee in the sociology department. Feelings of isolation and loneliness began to take their toll on my mental and physical health early on in my career here. Racially fueled abuses, slights, and microaggressions committed by people with significantly more power than me filled me with despair and caused me to question my very self-worth.  There were times when I felt like leaving Penn State without the coveted PhD and returning home to a disappointed mother. Fortunately, I was able to forge relationships with other students of color across the university, including close bonds with the three black women in my department. With them, I felt empowered. By no longer feeling alone, I was able to face the challenges of graduate school head-on.

As rough and splinter-filled as the “stair” that is graduate school has been for me, my story has a happy ending. Upon graduating this August, I will begin my career as a tenure-track professor of sociology at Missouri State University. In a way, you could say that I was successful in spite of the roadblocks and obstacles placed in front of me. I relied on a close network of trusted mentors, friends, and family who helped me navigate the often-times racist and unsupportive environment of my department. If it weren’t for them, there quite literally wouldn’t be a me.

So why am I pushing so hard for a graduate employee union? Why am I diverting precious time from writing my dissertation to speak out on behalf of the Coalition of Graduate Employees and their mission of graduate employee advocacy and unionization? Why don’t I simply lay low and bide my time until I move on to Missouri State? The answers to these questions are simple: I believe that the success of graduate students of color at predominantly white institutions relies on the lessening of the power differential between university administration and graduate employees.  With a union that emphasizes emphasizes empathy and solidarity, graduate employees of color will find it easier to have their issues addressed and thrive in this academic environment. I don’t want future students to have to go through what I went through. I want them to come to a university where students stand together in solidarity.

Though the splinter-filled stair to the PhD will never be crystal, it is my strong belief that a graduate employee union will help smooth it out.  


This blog post was contributed by Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, a PhD candidate and graduate employee in the Sociology Department.

No Guarantee

One could say that teaching is in my blood since my father and my grandfather were teachers and my mother works as a secretary in the Wisconsin school district where I grew up. The advantage of coming from a line of educators was that I was inundated with a strong value for education at a young age. The drawback was seeing teachers’ value decline over the years, an observation which taught me that simply because life is good now, there is no guarantee it will always be good in the future.

Growing up, my family was solidly middle class. My dad made a good living as a teacher. My mom was able to stay home and take care of me and my sister and didn’t return to work until we were both in elementary school. Although we weren’t rich by any means, we never wanted for anything either. However, with the onset of the Great Recession, the situation for teachers changed significantly.

When my dad began teaching in 1980, teachers’ unions were able to bargain with local school boards for salary increases and benefits, and when compromises couldn’t be reached, arbitrators were called in to make decisions. By the end of 2011, arbitrators, as well as the qualifying economic offers that had replaced them in 1993, were gone and had been replaced by a one-sided system courtesy of Act 10, or the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill.

Under Act 10, Wisconsin public employees are required to pay more into their pensions and foot a higher percentage of their health care bills, and while unions still exist in Wisconsin, they no longer have the power they did when my dad began teaching. The result is that educators are essentially forced to take whatever the school board offers them. As my father explains, the logic is “if you don’t like the offer, go teach somewhere else.” My father, feeling devalued and at retiring age, reluctantly stopped teaching in 2012 after 32 years at his school.

Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin, but if my father’s story illustrates anything, it’s the need for strong unions. When Governor Scott Walker (R) wanted to address Wisconsin’s projected state deficit, he went after public service workers. We can never know when circumstances are going to change, whether in the national economy or in the state of Pennsylvania. Who is to say that if Penn State were to face a projected deficit or needed to make budget cuts, graduate employees’ stipends and health care wouldn’t be on the line? I know I’m happy and well-cared for as a Penn State graduate employee today, but I don’t know whether I’ll be able to say the same tomorrow or four years from now. Do you? The answer to that question is exactly why we need a union.


This blog post was contributed by Katie Warczak, a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Dept.

Compound Scarcity: Life as a Graduate Employee with Children

I was asked if I could write something about life as a graduate employee with children.

I got the email at 11 at night, and my first reaction was “How would I possibly have time to do that?” then I realized that was exactly the point.

I love my jobs – all of them. I love collaborating with faculty and colleagues from here and around the country on research projects. I love the challenge of teaching classes that students are not always excited about coming in. I loved taking classes before I was ABD. And my favorite jobs are with my family: playing with my baby, teaching my older children electronics or critical thinking, cooking dinners, reading bedtime stories.

There is only one problem: compound scarcity. To put it simply, whatever shortages of time, money, and energy are likely to affect the average graduate employee, having a family adds to the challenge.

My fellow grad students post selfies in the computer lab late into the evening working on their dissertation; I’ve been home since 5 helping with cooking and homework and diapers. They fight off sickness as a result of the combined stress of teaching, research and coursework; I have to work my schedule around the potential sickness of any of five family members.

None of this is to complain. As I said, I love all of my jobs. But it is to say that being a graduate worker is more complicated, the more people are depending on you, and advisor, departments and potential future employers often don’t account for those complications.

When my youngest son was born last year with lung issues, he had to spend a couple of weeks at Hershey medical center. We were lucky that his medical costs were fully covered, but that disturbance set me back on progress in writing, complicated my research assistantship and left our house looking like a tornado went through.

I have obligations to my students to teach well. I have obligations to my collaborators to keep papers moving forward. I have obligations to my program to try and finish in a timely manner. And I have obligations to my family. When you have a family, not only do your plans have to be more flexible, but it’s that much harder to recover lost time afterwards and catch up on those obligations. And I know that at the end of this, I have four other people relying on me, and that I can’t just wait for the right job or squeeze the budget to spend another few months working on a dissertation.

When I got that email, I had spent part of the day supervising kids during a snow cancellation, I had spent an hour shopping and I was just settling down to prepare for teaching the next day. I never regret having a family or coming to grad school for a moment. But I often have to wonder how (and if) I will manage to keep juggling all the balls I’ve been handed.

– Graduate Employee, Sociology 

Why do you support unionization?

At our Labor Day picnic we asked graduate employees to write down why they support unionization at Penn State. Here are a few reasons why. 

Mali and Shakil - Entomology and English

Graduate unions support international students, by fighting to ensure they have the resources that they need to succeed.Katie - EnglishGraduate unions provide a safety net to stop sudden changes from taking place without graduate worker input.Chanell - SociologyGraduate unions fight to stop grad workers from being taken advantage of.

Curry - EnglishAnd even if you aren't sure about graduate unionization, shouldn't graduate workers get to at least vote?