Penn State Hearing Review


In the past week and a half, Penn State’s administration has insulted every aspect of graduate assistants’ work or, as they were so fond of calling it, our “activities.” For those of you who have been keeping up with CGE’s Twitter and Facebook, this will come as no surprise, but for readers still scratching their heads, let me explain:

On September 5, 2017, CGE, along with their Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) representatives, went toe-to-toe with Penn State’s administration and their representatives, Ballard Spahr, LLP, a high-powered and grievously expensive Philadelphia law firm, at a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) hearing. This hearing will result in a ruling (likely sometime in December) on whether or not Penn State graduate assistants are employees. Given that the PLRB handed down a favorable ruling to Temple University in 2000 when the graduate assistants there were facing a similar challenge to unionization, we expect the PLRB to reaffirm that graduate assistants are, as we all know, workers employed by Penn State. However, when the hearing wrapped up on September 13th, it was clear that Penn State’s administration would say anything to deny that fact. 

PSEA and CGE called witnesses for the first two days of the hearing and argued graduate assistants’ labor qualified as work on the grounds that we provide an essential service to Penn State, are paid wages, receive healthcare benefits, pay taxes, and are processed through the same payroll system as other employees. What was Ballard Spahr’s reaction to our logical arguments? The assertion that they needed a break after each of our witnesses testified because they had to frantically Google search each witness and dig up dirt on them: aka their CVs. They then went on to imply that what we were doing wasn’t work if 1) we used what we did to get a future job 2) we enjoyed what we were doing.

Once CGE’s and PSEA’s two days were up and Ballard Spahr’s witnesses took the stand (in contrast to our mere two days, their testimony lasted FIVE), the offensive statements began flying at a rapidfire pace (see our Twitter feed for proof). There were small offences, such as using every word in the English language except for “work” to describe what graduate students do and suggesting that because our roles at the university are so complex that we can’t be classified as employees. 

However, then there were some big insults, including the claims that teaching does not constitute a service to the university and that TAs don’t lessen the workload of professors and, in fact, may increase their workload. Both claims consistently appeared throughout faculty members’ and administrators’ testimony. Essentially, according to those who testified, graduate assistants are a burden to Penn State rather than an asset; we do no work, bring in no money, and require expensive “financial support” (which we apparently do nothing in exchange for) from the university in order to get our degrees.

Over the course of the hearing, Penn State’s administrators, contrary to what they say, showed that they do not value graduate assistants or the labor we do. In fact, they downright insulted us by suggesting that during our time here we do nothing of value for the university, in spite of all the research and teaching we do.

Penn State’s administrators say they care, but what they are interested in is the university’s bottom line and they showed that they’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the short term to keep the long-term status quo. This is why we need a union. If the administration does not value us and the work we do, then we cannot expect them to have our best interests at heart. Only we can make a difference because we know all the work we do and, unlike the administration, acknowledge that it is labor. A labor of love, perhaps, but still labor.

In Solidarity, The Coalition of Graduate Employees