BlogNews and Updates

Expanded FAQ, Round 2

We’ve been getting more and more questions, and we’re happy to answer them! If yours fell through the cracks, drop us a line and we’ll get right on it. If you have a question that isn’t addressed here, fill out our anonymous form and we’ll get to it ASAP!  

Make sure to check out our main FAQ, and check out our first expanded FAQ.

Q: Strike has been a major concern. Please comment on the coming strike of U Illinois graduates. UI GEO claimed that they would not only stop working but also picket classroom and buildings to paralyze the campus.In my opinion, this plan offends students' right to receive education, and is not voluntary. UI GEO also only succeeded once in the negotiation. Since 2000, there has been two strikes and one planned strike, which means UI GEO have already run out of negotiation strategy. How would Penn State graduate labor union avoid this situation?

A: We understand the concern – strikes are never something that anyone undertakes lightly, particularly educators and researchers that would rather be in the classroom or their labs.

It’s important to understand some contextual differences. University of Illinois is in a unique situation nationally; Illinois has been in a protracted budget crisis, with billions of dollars cut from K-12 and Higher Education over the past decade. In response, the University has attempted to cut tuition remission in order to force graduate assistants to pay their own tuition.

In comparison, Penn State is financially healthy and faces no looming budget issues.

University of Illinois graduate assistants have democratically decided through a strike authorization vote – which must be approved by a majority of the membership – that they wish to pursue this course of action, which has been forced by extreme circumstances. It would be up to Penn State graduate assistants to democratically determine a response in the unlikely scenario that we are ever put in a similar situation.


Q: CGE has been claiming that RA/TA/GA wage is not a zero sum game, that's why minimal stipend will not reduce individual's income. But how do you know for sure? For example, overhead fees from research funding pays for most RAs. Since there is always a cap on research funding, it's a zero sum game. Why can unionization force Penn State to spend more money on our stipend without increasing overhead fees on Professors, tuition on undergraduate or even decrease the amount of assistants in the future?

A: This is a good question! One can look at the last three years since CGE began organizing, in which we’ve seen 4.58%, 3.02%, and 2.93% raises to University stipend grades. To our knowledge, no stipends anywhere in the University were reduced to help pay for these raises, indicating that stipend levels can be adjusted upward without a negative impact on individual pay. This makes sense: funding for graduate assistantships are just one item in a very large institutional budget.

Grants are submitted with detailed budgets that include items for graduate salaries and tuition (you can see the NSF budget template here for one example). This is the money that is used to fund graduate assistants. The overhead, also known as Facilities and Administration (F&A) cost, does not go to paying graduate assistants. Details on these costs can be found here. And details on how they have been used in the past can be found here.


Q: My department is fantastic and the faculty treat us with kindness and respect – like colleagues-in-training and not minions to do their bidding. Our program is structured so that we only accept/enroll a small number of students who intend to enter academia and engage in research, and thus, we are all guaranteed funding for 5 years that is competitive with peer institutions. Our key concerns are with the pressure to publish and uncertainty of the academic job market, both of which hinge very heavily on the relationships we build with faculty as mentors and colleagues. I fear these mentoring relationships would be put at risk by inserting awkwardness and formality brought about by fear of litigation or union action. Perhaps I am living in la la land, but I don't understand what problem this union is trying to solve, or how a union would benefit students who are not in dyfunctional environments.

A: That’s great that things are going well for you! Our hope is that all graduate assistants can enjoy the same security that you do.

It’s important to note that peer-reviewed research has indicated no negative effect on graduate/adviser relationships. It makes sense that individuals would be worried about this – thankfully, the evidence is clear.

Even for graduate assistants in good working and learning environments, a union contract would guarantee a level of stability we don’t have now. Several years ago, the University was thrown into turmoil by the administration’s decision to dramatically change healthcare, meaning that graduate assistants were worried about health insurance instead of focusing on their work. A union means that changes like that wouldn’t happen overnight and would require negotiation with graduate assistants. That way, what’s going well keeps going well, without unfortunate crises that hurt our ability to focus on our work.


Q: Despite the claim that membership due is voluntary, is it true that only union members can vote on critical union issues, including the union board and the decision to strike?

A: Union membership is entirely voluntary! As with most membership-based organizations, certain decisions – such as electing leadership – are reserved to the membership. Additionally, the decision to strike and vote on contracts is reserved to membership, though graduate unions usually survey and update all bargaining unit members about contract negotiations.

That’s why it’s so important that people get involved. We want everyone’s voices to be heard in important decisions.


Q: PSEA + NEA dues are listed at $193.50 for a 1/4 year position, and $367.50 for a 1/2 year position. A 1/4 year position is defined as less than 500 hours of work. On a typical RA, is a student considered a 1/4 year appointment? With summer funding, is this still the case?

A: The dues level for graduate assistants has been set at the ¼ year / less than 500 hours position rate.


Q: If it's optional to join the union and pay dues but I'll be represented either way then why should I choose to pay dues?

A: Union membership conveys additional benefits such as professional development, member benefits (such as educator liability insurance), discounted insurance rates, and other financial incentives.

More fundamentally, joining means you have a voice in your union. You can be represented as a nonmember, but we’re stronger when we’re organized, and when everyone gets involved. The choice is up to you!


Q: Are there any plans (or concrete ideas) to negotiate for retirement benefits for graduate employees?

A: No. Bargaining priorities will be set through member survey. If retirement benefits are important to you, please indicate it in a future survey!


Q: Could CGE negotiate for more democratic representation of graduate employees on relevant university committees, for instance a graduate student member (with voting rights) on the board of trustees or general university guidelines to have graduate students represented on the department level (for instance, hiring committees, admission committees, graduate program committee etc.)?

A: A union cannot determine University management (which the Board of Trustees is). Graduate unions often work with Universities to provide graduate assistant perspectives on relevant University-wide committees; however, that does not typically take place on the department level, and the University is not required to allow it.

CGE is committed to graduate representation at all levels of Penn State. We believe that shared governance means that faculty, graduates, undergraduates, and staff should have a meaningful voice in our University community.


Q: Would a union be able to represent one grad student in a dispute with another grad student?

A: PSEA offers trained mediation services for members, subject to the consent of all parties.