BlogNews and Updates

Expanded FAQ!

We’ve gotten a ton of questions since our FAQ went up, and we want to make sure we address them! If you asked a question and don’t see it here, shoot us a Facebook message and we’ll make sure it gets addressed. If you have a new question that isn’t addressed, fill out this anonymous form and we’ll get to it as soon as possible!


Q: How does this impact international students? I would not foresee any changes/benefits since the rules and guidelines that govern international students (particularly visa status etc.) are different from US citizens.

A: International students have the same rights to union membership and activity as domestic students. International students would be protected under the contract as well. Many graduate unions have undertaken efforts to specifically protect international students, such as negotiating expedited grievance procedures to protect international students in jeopardy of losing their assistantship and visa. Other graduate unions have taken steps to bargain benefits specific to international students, such as per diems for required trainings on English Language Proficiency (see Michigan’s contract for an example).

CGE has foregrounded international student issues in our work, including bringing an immigration attorney to Penn State to talk to international students after the Muslim Ban was introduced. We also worked with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and our affiliate National Education Association to fight the ban. We remain committed to fighting for international student rights at Penn State.



Q: Why are union dues so low compared to other B1G/AAU schools? If dues are additionally optional, how could this be enough money to support the costs of the bargaining process?

A: Dues-paying membership is always your choice- but we encourage everyone to join! The more members we have, the stronger we are.

Other B1G/AAU schools are usually organized with the United Autoworkers or American Federation of Teachers. We are affiliated with the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the National Education Association, which calculate dues differently (something taken into consideration in affiliation!) Support for our member-led bargaining efforts is provided by PSEA staff, inclusive of organizers, bargaining specialists, and researchers that work with higher education and K-12 locals throughout Pennsylvania. All support is utilized at the direction of our elected, graduate-employee leadership.


Q: I just read about dues being voluntary. Can you provide your source for this, because I don't know how a union would work that way.

A: The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) outlawed the "closed shop," the term for a workplace in which dues-paying union membership is required for employment. Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) created a compromise called the "agency shop" in which non-members would pay an "agency fee," an amount smaller than union dues to help cover the cost of bargaining and maintaining the contract. Allowing agency fee arrangements in the public sector was left to the States to determine.

Pennsylvania passed the Public Employee Fair Share Fee Law (1993), which allowed agency fees if unions and employers negotiated them in to a contract. Many public sector union locals across Pennsylvania do not charge agency fees, as they are not in their contracts.

Janus v. AFSCME (2018) will be heard by the Supreme Court February 26th, and consensus opinion holds that the conservative majority will overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education by this June, making "agency fees" illegal for public sector unions nationwide. What this means: all unionized public sector workplaces, including Penn State, will be "open shops," in which bargaining unit employees that decline to become union members will not pay for their representation, but will be entitled to protection under the union contract.

By the time that CGE begins to negotiate a contract, agency fees will be unconstitutional, and fees will only be paid to the union if an employee chooses to become a member. We encourage everyone to join! Our union is stronger when we’re united.


Q: There has been many questions regarding whether dues will be mandatory and/or whether there will be an agency fee for non-union members. Currently the agency fee question for public sector employees has a case in front of the Supreme Court. This has been the basis for suggesting dues will be voluntary. However, Penn State employees are not public sector employees (e.g. not hired by the state). How does this change in status affect whether dues will be mandatory or voluntary? What is the process for private unions for deciding as such? And what position will CGE take, assuming it is a private union?

A: The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled that Penn State employees and employees of state-related institutions are public sector employees, and Penn State has not contested that it is a public employer as defined under the law.

This was agreed upon by both parties in the first day of the PLRB hearings, found here.

HEARING EXAMINER: Wait one second. Do the parties agree that Penn State is a public employer?


Q: Hi, I have a question about dues. How do you already how much they will be, and would they be subject to increase? Would you be able to predict whether your first contract negotiation demands a raise that would offset that $193 per year?

A: PSEA/NEA have set dues levels, and have provided a figure for what our dues levels will be. They are subject to increase based upon a vote of the House of Delegates, the legislative body (which we will have representation in proportional to our membership) for PSEA.



Q: What are the benefits the university is required to bargain with the union over? For example, does this include…health insurance package, paid parental leave, other paid leave, child care. I understand all of these could be bargained for, but I'm wondering if any are mandatory

A: Compensation, hours, and terms and conditions of employment are all mandatory subjects of bargaining. What this means is that Penn State cannot make changes to these items without negotiating changes with the union. It does not mean that they are obligated to agree to union proposals.



Q: Will a graduate assistant union affect graduate or professional students who are not employees?

A: No. A graduate assistant union will only cover graduate assistants with respect to terms and conditions of employment, and will not impact academic or student matters.


Q: Graduate fellows are excluded from the collective bargaining unit. Will any decisions made by the bargaining unit (e.g., the graduate student health care plan) affect graduate students who are not included in the union? If so, what are the specific ways in which the union contract will affect these graduate students?

A: The union can only negotiate terms and conditions of employment for the bargaining unit members; it cannot negotiate terms and conditions for employees outside of the bargaining unit. Employment conditions for non-represented employees will continue to be set solely by Penn State.


Q: What, precisely, would PSEA's role in the graduate employee union be? Would there be any issues that arose within PSEA or NEA which would affect the graduate employee union at Penn State? Are there any governing rules from PSEA or NEA that the union here would have to follow?

A: Union locals in PSEA/NEA are distinct from their parent affiliate; their state and national affiliate provide resources at the local's request. The degree to which locals participate in the governance or activities of their parent affiliate (both state and national) is up to the local, and issues do not "trickle down" to the local level.

The only requirements that PSEA/NEA set is that locals must adhere to democratic rules of "one member, one vote" and secret ballots for all internal elections.


Q: The FAQ currently states that union membership is voluntary, but that "The union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit regardless of membership status." How would this be enforced, practically? From my understanding, only dues-paying members of the union can vote on bargaining priorities and/or the contract agreement reached by the union and the university.

A: Non-members can reach out to union representatives if they feel that their rights under the contract are being violated, and the union is legally required (under a "duty of fair representation") to represent them regardless of their membership status. Surveys setting bargaining priorities can be sent to all bargaining unit members, not just dues paying members. Voting to ratify a final contract is reserved to membership.



Q: How do I respond to STEM friends who believe they will get the short end of the funding stick if we vote to unionize?

A: The goal of the union is to make sure everyone is doing well – including STEM graduate assistants! We understand why this may cause nervousness, and it’s a common concern.

There are some important things to consider. First, graduate funding is not zero sum – graduate assistant funding is a small budget line in a multibillion dollar institutional budget. Raising stipends one place does not necessarily mean that the funds must come from someone else's stipend.

Second, there have been adjustments to graduate assistant stipends in the past – including minimum stipends – without a negative impact on certain assistant pay grades. Bargaining wouldn’t change that dynamic; it would just give us input on those adjustments, ensure that they're consistent over time, and ensure that they’re made as negotiated.

Third, it’s not in anyone’s interest to lower stipends! We want to make sure graduate assistants get paid competitively, and departments want to make sure funding packages are attractive.

Fourth, we’ve reached out to other graduate unions, and they have not encountered any issues with graduate stipends getting adjusted downward to compensate for raises in the minimum stipend.

We understand this is a cause for concern. If there are any additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us, and we’ll try to help.


Q: How will the representation structure of the union be determined? How will representatives for the bargaining team be chosen? Will there be an effort to ensure diverse representation from a variety of colleges, majors, and graduate positions, and if so, how will this practically be implemented?

A: It will be determined through democratic vote – so it’s up to us!

Typically, graduate unions have “Department Representatives” who are elected by the membership of that department. Those representatives communicate issues and concerns to the elected leadership, and are the first point of contact for graduate assistants that have issues or concerns. Department Representatives will often meet as a group called a “Steward’s Meeting” or “Representative Assembly” to discuss issues and legislate for the union local.

For bargaining teams, there are several approaches. Sometimes, bargaining teams accept anyone that wishes to be a part of the team. Other times, members of the team are elected. There is an expectation that members of the team will be demographically representative, representative across different academic disciplines and job categories, and representative of international students; some graduate unions codify requirements (gender/racial diversity, among other criteria) in their Constitution to ensure that this happens.

We are and will remain committed to a transparent, member-driven, democratic union that reflects the concerns of all members of the graduate assistant community. Union democracy means getting involved, and we encourage everyone to attend meetings and make their voice heard!


Q: How active would I, the typical grad student, have to be in the union?

A: As much or as little as you’d like to be! We encourage everyone to get involved, but it’s not a requirement.


Q: I'm scared of what might happen in my department if I speak out, because I am not guaranteed funding. Retaliation might be super not okay at PSU, but after the hearing, I don't know that I'm totally convinced that they'd all play fair.

A: We understand – unfortunately, this is a scary reality for employees that choose to unionize when employers are opposed. However, organizing remains your legal right. The Public Employee Relations Act (PERA) prohibits “Interfering, restraining or coercing employes in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Article IV of this act,” and “Discriminating in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any employe organization. Retaliation for union activity is illegal and constitutes an “unfair labor practice.” If you feel this has happened, contact CGE immediately and we’ll help.

It’s important to add that faculty, staff, and administrators cannot ask you how you’re voting, and cannot tell you how to vote. Ballots are secret, and will never be revealed to the University.



Q: If I love my job and my department, how can I participate without making it sound like I think I deserve more of everything?

A: It’s great that things are going well for you! We recognize that some departments enjoy productive relationships with their faculty and competitive funding packages, and we want that to continue. Our goal is for every graduate assistant to have the same enjoyment and security in their assistantship, and we hope that you can help us advocate for that.


Q: Where can I find compiled information on how unions have affected the lives and working conditions of graduate students at other universities?

A: There are a couple of sources!

You can look through specific contracts here:
Columbia's graduate union has provided summaries here:
There is also a peer reviewed article that describes impact, found here: