The Coalition of Graduate Employees: The Who, What, Why and How – The Daily Collegian: Guest Columnist

Source: The Coalition of Graduate Employees: The Who, What, Why and How – The Daily Collegian: Guest Columnist (This was previously published in the Daily Collegian)

Since the Coalition of Graduate Employees officially announced our plans to work for a graduate employee union on Labor Day, interested students have asked us: What is the Coalition of Graduate Employees? Why would graduate students unionize? What is your plan? Though the rationales for unionizing are simple (a union is the most sustainable answer to making sure graduate students are incorporated into the University’s decision-making processes), answers specific to our case in Penn State are more complex. However, those of us who have been working on this issue for the last few months are certainly confident about these few things.

What is the CGE?

We are an organization of graduate employees from across Penn State organized around the agenda of discussing our place at Penn State. We are an inclusive group and we welcome all graduate employees and their allies to join our meetings. Our uniting belief is that graduate employees at Penn State deserve to be part of the conversation about our future. As a group we teach thousands of students a year and contribute to Penn State maintaining impressive NRC rankings; yet we also have to continuously fight for recognition.

As employees many of us feel ignored and marginalized as we have come to see our situation becoming more and more untenable. For example, the cost of our healthcare radically increased two years ago and the university promised to address the potential problems graduate employees might face because of the changes. But any decisions they made about us were done without real input from us and then handed down after the fact. The recent move to turn the Ride for Five program into a lottery program was also done without any discussions with the graduate employees who use it.

Why not the town-halls? Why a union?

We want a union because graduate employees need an institutional role in decision-making at Penn State rather than ad hoc recognition. Town-halls are nice for the moment, but conversations rarely continue after people leave the room. Two years ago when our health care changed, a last minute town-hall was called. A task force was created, but it was given no power. Nothing happened; once the anger died down Penn State returned to the status quo. This year the university has again announced town-halls. With only an hour assigned for each college, it is hard to imagine that they will be anything more than the appearance of listening. Nothing will be changed.

If graduate students want to be partners at Penn State then they have to be part of ongoing discussions and charged as decision makers. We believe that the best format, and the format that six out of 14 Big Ten schools have followed, is a graduate union. In unionized schools graduate students report higher levels of professional and personal support, while faculty report that their relationship with students remain unchanged.

What is our plan?

We will spend the next few months getting to know graduate student employees campus wide, identifying common concerns and developing common solutions. We encourage all graduate employees and interested parties to come to our meetings. Together, we will create a graduate employee union that can work with and hold the university administration to account. Our problems in the different colleges are unique, but the solution is not that different. We believe that it is critical to have an open discussion about what unionization means. We encourage all graduate employees or those interested in our ideas to come to our meetings and get in touch with us about specifics and what can be done in the months ahead. Details can be found here.

There is an expression (wrongly thought of as a Chinese curse) that says “May you live in interesting times.” We think what it means for us as Penn State graduate employees is pretty certain. It is certainly an interesting time to be a graduate employee here. The last few years have been a time Penn State will not forget anytime soon. We have an obligation and an opportunity to make this university a better place than when we found it.