We've put together the below FAQ based on some of the questions we've had from graduate employees as we've been organizing. We've also translated it into other languages and made them into printable flyers for those who are interested.
What is a graduate employee union?
- A graduate employee union is an organization of graduate assistants, research assistants, and teaching assistants that works together to pursue their collective interests. As our legal representative, the union would negotiate with Penn State over stipends, benefits, and other working conditions.
- A union would give us a strong democratic voice at Penn State. It would protect employees advocating for better conditions.
What is the unionization process?
- We have filed for a union election and so will get the chance to vote soon. The vote is decided by a simple majority of those who have voted, and we are currently working with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to figure out the details of when the election will be held.
What sort of issues would our union bargain over?
- Stipends: A union sets baseline stipend levels across the University to ensure that no graduate employees live at or below poverty levels. This would not mean that all employees are paid the same, only that the union would negotiate overall stipend scales in an equitable and transparent way.
- Benefits: A union contract would cover a variety of benefits, including insurance, maternity/paternity leave, reimbursement for travel, and even parking rules. Being able to set these rules into a contract can prevent sudden increases in costs similar to what happened at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
- Work Environment: A union can set parameters for how much work is expected from RAs, TAs, and GAs as well as act as an intermediary on the graduate employees' behalf. The union can also serve as an important protection against abuses that sometimes occur in the highly asymmetric advisor/student relationship.
- CGE is commited to soliciting feedback from the graduate student boday about issues of concern. Please contact us with any feedback you might have. For an example of some of the details, you can look at the summary of the recent UConn Graduate Employee Contract.
Who would be in our union?
- Domestic and international GAs, RAs and TAs.
- We would seek to include all graduate students who are paid by Penn State for their work, no matter what the work is.
Can international students join?
- Yes. In fact, the US State Department specifically says that temporary workers and students have the right to: “Request help from unions, immigrant and labor rights groups and other groups.” Find out more here.
How would our union be governed?
- We would have the right to decide how the union is structured. All graduate employees would have a voice in the union process, and it would be internally democratic. This would mean that the union leadership would be graduate employees.
- We would affiliate with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), which would provide resources, guidance, and support. This would not mean that the PSEA would direct us but that we would have a formal relationship with them.
What have been the experiences of graduate employee unions at other universities?
- There are 32 universities that are unionized within the US including many large public schools: the University of California system, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and New York University.
- Additionally 6 out of 14 schools in the Big Ten have unionized graduate employees.
- “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” (Rogers, et al 2013).
What about dues?
- If we vote to have a union, we estimate our dues will be approximately $193 per year. Dues will be waived until we negotiate and ratify our contract through a majority vote.
- Graduate employees themselves make proposals for the contract and ratify or reject the resulting agreement. Whatever contract we agreed to would be signed with our dues in mind.
What about my advisor or PI?
- According to Rogers et al (2013), graduate student relations with PIs at unionized schools tend to be the same as or better than graduate student relations with PIs at non-unionized schools.
- You do not have to talk to your advisor about this process at all. Unionization is a legally safeguarded, personal decision.
What about striking?
- Strikes are rare and occur only as a last resort when the University and union are unable to reach an agreement. Our goal is always to resolve such differences in a mutually satisfactory manner.
- Most importantly, a strike would happen only after the graduate employees themselves decide to strike through a democratic vote.
What can I do?
- Talk to your friends and colleagues about unionization.
- Tell us what problems you face.
- Join us at a meeting in order to get more involved.