Reply All: “Graduate Student Union”

"Penn State's valued relationship with its graduate students: President Eric Barron's letter to the University community. April 3, 2017."

What an appropriate choice of date. Three years ago today, many of those fighting for union representation of graduate employees were on the Old Main lawn, rallying to protect affordable health care for students.

"A group seeking to represent all graduate assistants and fellows at Penn State filed a petition on Feb. 22, 2017, for union representation with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB)."

A group of graduate employees delivered the signatures of graduate employees in a petition to allow us to vote on whether to be represented by a union. Specifically, we sought out the Pennsylvania State Education Association for their experience representing educators and the resources they’ve made available to the student body leadership. CGE remains, first and foremost, a group of Penn State graduate employees.

"Universities are marketplaces of free ideas and expression, and I encourage an open dialogue about graduate student unionization at Penn State. As we begin to discuss these issues, I want to convey a few thoughts to the Penn State community about the University’s view on how graduate student unionization impacts Penn State's academic mission."

Only university administration can disseminate information through means such as mass emails to the entire Penn State  community (like this message), top headlines in Penn State News (like  this morning’s), or official graduate school FAQs and email addresses (see below). If they choose to leverage this power in attempt to sway a union election, they are not promoting open dialogue, but are instead disseminating one-sided information. Despite our having an active web page and social media presence, there are no links to the CGE or even mention of us by name in the email. Further, President Barron’s refusal to meet with us certainly does not constitute the “open dialogue” he claims to encourage.

"As a public research university, Penn State is committed to the successful intellectual and professional development of its graduate students. We view our graduate students as students first and foremost. They are our mentees, future scholars and, potentially, our future colleagues. Penn State does not oppose the concept of unions or the unionization of employees. However, the University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. For this reason, Penn State opposes this petition for representation with the PLRB."

Here, Penn State runs counter to both the National and Pennsylvania Labor Relations Boards who have declared that graduate assistants are both students and employees because they do work, get paid, and contribute substantially to the mission of the university. The university claims to know the needs of graduate employees better than the employees themselves. Furthermore, Penn State is not respecting the right of graduate employees to deliberate and decide amongst themselves by remaining neutral.

"Graduate students are integral to the Penn State educational experience, and graduate student unionization has the potential to impact not only current students at Penn State, but also students for decades to come and the community as a whole. I hope everyone within the Penn State community will take the opportunity to become informed about the topic of graduate student unionization. Many resources are available, including those on gradfacts.psu.edu/union."

We do hope that a graduate employee union will impact future students at Penn State. With union support, future graduate employees might hold some power in the decision-making processes that directly affect their lives such as changes in health care, stipends, child care, teaching loads, and transportation. We also hope that a union would make graduate work at Penn State accessible and welcoming for all students regardless of their individual needs. The resources provided by the administration, however, do not acknowledge these benefits of graduate employee solidarity, but rather present a biased view of what unions would mean for administration.

"We are proud of our graduate students and the numerous ways in which they contribute to Penn State and the community. When aspiring graduate students apply for admission to Penn State, they are accepted based on their outstanding academic achievements, their scholarly and professional interests and, as a hallmark of graduate education, their individuality. Our programs are tailored to the individual students within them, and our faculty work collaboratively with their students to advise and support them in their learning and research endeavors. During my time as a graduate student, the most seminal experiences of my graduate career were interactions with faculty as mentors and collaborators."

President Barron chooses not to mention the fact that an increasing portion of the university's labor is conducted by graduate employees and lecturers. Departments are quite intentional in recruiting students who will meet the needs of their labs/courses/etc. While they do not recognize our status as employees, we make up much of the labor force as teachers and researchers. Like administration, we also believe in the benefit of healthy collaboration with faculty. Solidarity amongst graduate employees would ensure that these relationships with faculty remain safe and fair while maintaining their intellectual rigor.

"While we understand that there may be issues upon which we can improve, we are committed to doing so in ways that best protect the varying needs of our diverse graduate student population. We do not believe a collective bargaining agreement with a union – which is designed to serve the interests of a collective whole and the union itself, rather than individual students – could ever best serve the needs of our graduate students or the University. In fact, we believe it could impede the academic and mentoring relationships Penn State has with its graduate students."

The university ignores the fundamental principles of unionization: fair representation, equal bargaining rights, and protections for individual employees that do not rely on the voluntary cooperation of the institution in admitting and remedying their faults. They assume that a collective organization made up of graduate employees will represent the individual interests of those employees less adequately than the administration employing them, while insinuating that organizers are some sort of outside interest group, which is not the case. Furthermore, the university ignores the body of evidence that shows that graduate unions improve the work environment for individual members.

"If anyone has questions or concerns about unionization or any other matter impacting our graduate students, please visit gradfacts.psu.edu/union or reach out to gradinfo@psu.edu.

Sincerely,

Eric J. Barron, President"

We at CGE believe that you deserve open dialogue with your administration. We have provided resources here and on our blog to better understand the slanted information that the university has provided on these sites. We would also encourage you to do your own research (one of the things graduate employees do best) if you wish. And if you do have questions about CGE, we’d love to hear from you.