We, the Coalition of Graduate Employees, are a group of graduate workers fighting for fair representation in the decision-making processes that affect our labor and quality of life. We are organizing a union that will fight for graduate employee rights and level the power differential between the administration and graduate workers. Our teaching, research, and scholarship are valuable and we deserve dignified and equitable working conditions.
We need reliable and affordable healthcare for ourselves and our dependents. Penn State has repeatedly charged higher healthcare costs to graduate employees who cannot afford it while failing to maintain adequate access or inform us of changes. With rates of depression among graduate students above 50% according to a Berkeley study, CAPS does not have the resources to address the mental health needs of graduate employees. As recently as last August we faced significant difficulty with a transition in coverage, and many of us are still struggling to obtain affordable coverage for our dependents.
We want to ensure graduate employees, most of whom are already living paycheck to paycheck, have affordable access to the care they need. We fight for reliable, affordable healthcare for all graduate employees and dependents.
Penn State brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars from our teaching and grants, yet many of us struggle to make rent or pay for groceries. Although the administration is aware of this, little has been done to change it. Many of us continue to make at or below the Centre County living wage of $22,665 annually, and some are forced to register for food stamps and other government assistance. We must pay special attention to those of us with dependents, as many graduate employees come with partners and families.
When we can devote ourselves to teaching and research, Penn State thrives. We fight for a living wage for all graduate employees.
We need a say in course times and class sizes. Classes that start at 9:00 P.M. and later are detrimental to the well-being of our teachers as well as the quality of education provided to our students. It is unfair to force some teaching assistants to teach courses with hundreds of students while receiving minimal assistance. We also deserve respect and safe spaces to work. Graduate research assistants deserve a voice in setting the hours that work for them, without threats from abusive or exploitative supervisors. We should also not be forced into offices where we deal with issues such as broken windows, poorly installed insulation, and other health hazards.
When we are treated with dignity and given safe working environments, we are free to work to our fullest potential. We fight for a workplace that respects our teaching and research and provides dignified working conditions.
Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Misconduct
We face an enormous power differential when reporting sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct, particularly when faculty or advisors are involved. The 2015 Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey at Penn State reported that only 63% of graduate and professional students trust that the institution would handle a report of sexual misconduct fairly. We are trained to be mandatory reporters, but we do not receive adequate information in how to seek out resources and report our own experiences of harassment or misconduct. While we have the Title IX office and sometimes have Ombudspeople, it is vitally important that we have the option to seek recourse against sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct through a channel built to protect us, not the University.
We cannot tolerate harassment and misconduct at our University. We fight for training and resources in cases of harassment and misconduct that represent our interests, not those of the institution.
We demand a grievance process that works for graduate employees and does not leave all the power in the hands of our employer. If our rights are violated, we need a binding and fair process to address the issue. A contractually-guaranteed grievance process with union representation allows graduate workers to move through the grievance system with union support and advocacy and allows for an independent third-party arbitrator if needed.
The current procedures for solving problems—where such procedures even exist—are inadequate to address our needs. We fight for a grievance process that ensures the University does not take advantage of the workers already giving so much to the institution.
Commitment to Racial, Gender, and Disability Justice
Racial, gender, and disability biases pervade much of University life, and we are not exempt. All graduate employees at Penn State should have the full support of the University, and we deserve contractually-guaranteed prohibitions against discrimination. A full commitment to racial, gender, and disability justice means commitments to actively recruiting diverse faculty and graduate employees, transparency and inclusiveness in decision-making starting at the departmental level, and disability accommodations.
These commitments require a willingness to re-think old policies, like reliance on SRTE scores, that are known to perpetuate biases. We fight for a university that will lead, not follow, other universities into a more open and inclusive educational system.
Protections for International Graduate Employees
Our international graduate employees work here in conditions often very different from their nation of origin. Consequently, lack of familiarity with the working conditions and what is legal in the United States makes them vulnerable to unfair treatment. We demand that international students be oriented toward their legal rights as graduate employees and that their legal rights be safeguarded. They should not be expected to undergo special assessments in addition to the qualifications they presented to be accepted to their graduate programs at Penn State. They should not be coerced to work during holidays because they may not be able to go home like their domestic colleagues.
Our community should welcome international graduate employees, not exploit them. We fight for a university that provides the resources and protections international students need to succeed and thrive in the United States.
These issues are not inclusive of all the hardships faced by graduate employees. They are, however, widespread and widely felt issues that demand action.
We are aware that we are not the only population of employees facing problems. Our demands can and should be the minimum standard for all University employees, whether they are staff, student employees, graduate employees, or faculty. Too many employees of the University are subject to harassment or discrimination without recourse, too many are subject to arbitrary decisions by management, and too many are forced to work for less than a living wage. It is wrong that University administrators collect regular five-figure raises while the University’s employees struggle to make ends meet, or go years with inadequate raises.
The Coalition of Graduate Employees will fight for these goals for graduate employees, whether it is through a contract or other means, and we will not rest until there are substantive solutions. Likewise, we will stand with all other employees in our University community that feel they deserve better.