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.