Have questions about the union? No problem! Check out our FAQ. If you don’t see an answer to your question, feel free to send your question to our anonymous form here.
We know there are a lot of questions so we have a lot of answers, we've tried to section things out so you can find your questions. The questions also get more detailed the further down in a section.
- GRADUATE UNIONS IN GENERAL
- REPRESENTATION AND AFFILIATION
- WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR MY ACADEMIC LIFE?
- INTERNATIONAL GRADUATE ASSISTANTS
- WAGES AND COMPENSATION
- UNION STRUCTURE AND MEMBER RIGHTS
Q: What is a graduate employee union?
A: A graduate employee union is an organization of graduate assistants, research assistants, and teaching assistants that works together to pursue their collective interests. The union would negotiate with Penn State over stipends, benefits, and other working conditions. A union is a legally recognized organization that would give us a strong democratic voice at Penn State. It would provide us a mechanism for securing better conditions, and establish protections for graduate employees. The union’s power comes from the fact that University administration would be legally obligated to collectively bargain with union members.
Q: What makes a union different than GPSA?
A: The Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) works to advocate for graduate students in our role as students. However, their role at Penn State is advisory, and they cannot bargain over terms and conditions of employment. Joining together in a union gives graduate employees a joint voice at the bargaining table supported by Pennsylvania law.
Q: What have been the experiences of graduate employee unions at other universities?
A: There are over 32 universities that are unionized within the United States, including many globally ranked institutions: for example, the University of California system, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and New York University.
The first graduate assistant union recognized in the United States was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1969.
“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).
Q: What is the unionization process?
A: The Coalition of Graduate Employees formed in 2015 by graduate assistants with the goal of establishing a livable wage and protecting health insurance benefits for graduate assistants. We collected signed authorization cards from graduate assistants across Penn State between February of 2016, and February of 2017. These cards indicated support for a union election. Legally, a union vote requires signed authorization cards from at least 30% of employees. The CGE collected cards from a majority of graduate assistants. The authorization cards were delivered to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) on February 22, 2017 Penn State University administration requested hearings, claiming that graduate assistants are not employees. Seven hearing dates were held in September 2017 concerning our status as professional employees and our right to union representation.
On February 9, 2018, the PLRB ruled that we have the right to union representation, and ordered an election. The election date has not been set. The vote will be decided by a simple majority of votes cast. If the vote passes, we will begin drafting local bylaws, elect a bargaining team, and send a formal request to Penn State to begin the bargaining process. We hope that Penn State will agree to bargain; however, they have indicated they may appeal a vote to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. A Commonwealth Court decision can be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
More details will be released once election procedures have been set.
Q: What sort of issues would our union bargain over?
Stipends: Your union can negotiate over stipends so that no graduate assistants are making less than a living wage.
Benefits: Your union negotiates healthcare and benefits; all changes must be negotiated with graduate assistants, rather than set unilaterally. This means that healthcare benefits would be predictable year to year, without the possibility of sudden changes.
Working Conditions: Your union can advocate for better, safer working conditions for graduate assistants, protections from sexual harassment, fair complaint procedures, and ensure that graduate assistants cannot be forced to work more hours than they are contracted to (though graduate assistants are free to voluntarily work more hours!)
Your union is committed to soliciting feedback about issues and concerns. Please contact us with any feedback you might have. For an example of contract gains made by graduate unions, you can look at the summary of the recent UConn Graduate Employee Contract, or at GWC-UAW’s summary of graduate assistant contracts.
Q: Who bargains our contract?
A: We do. Bargaining teams are elected by the membership, and must be diverse representations of different job categories, departments, and demographics. Priorities for bargaining are also determined through member surveys, and members are continually updated on the progress of negotiations.
Q: Wouldn’t PSEA bargain the contract?
A: No. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is our affiliate, meaning they provide support, including staff experienced with bargaining, a research department, and legal advice. That support is utilized at graduate workers’ direction.
Q: What are the benefits the university is required to bargain with the union over? For example, does this include…health insurance package, paid parental leave, other paid leave, child care. I understand all of these could be bargained for, but I'm wondering if any are mandatory
A: Compensation, hours, and terms and conditions of employment are all mandatory subjects of bargaining. What this means is that Penn State cannot make changes to these items without negotiating changes with the union. It does not mean that they are obligated to agree to union proposals.
Q: Will a graduate assistant union affect graduate or professional students who are not employees?
A: No. A graduate assistant union will only cover graduate assistants with respect to terms and conditions of employment, and will not impact academic or student matters.
Q: Graduate fellows are excluded from the collective bargaining unit. Will any decisions made by the bargaining unit (e.g., the graduate student health care plan) affect graduate students who are not included in the union? If so, what are the specific ways in which the union contract will affect these graduate students?
A: The union can only negotiate terms and conditions of employment for the bargaining unit members; it cannot negotiate terms and conditions for employees outside of the bargaining unit. Employment conditions for non-represented employees will continue to be set solely by Penn State.
Q: What, precisely, would PSEA's role in the graduate employee union be? Would there be any issues that arose within PSEA or NEA which would affect the graduate employee union at Penn State? Are there any governing rules from PSEA or NEA that the union here would have to follow?
A: Union locals in PSEA/NEA are distinct from their parent affiliate; their state and national affiliate provide resources at the local's request. The degree to which locals participate in the governance or activities of their parent affiliate (both state and national) is up to the local, and issues do not "trickle down" to the local level.
The only requirements that PSEA/NEA set is that locals must adhere to democratic rules of "one member, one vote" and secret ballots for all internal elections.
Q: The FAQ currently states that union membership is voluntary, but that "The union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit regardless of membership status." How would this be enforced, practically? From my understanding, only dues-paying members of the union can vote on bargaining priorities and/or the contract agreement reached by the union and the university.
A: Non-members can reach out to union representatives if they feel that their rights under the contract are being violated, and the union is legally required (under a "duty of fair representation") to represent them regardless of their membership status. Surveys setting bargaining priorities can be sent to all bargaining unit members, not just dues paying members. Voting to ratify a final contract is reserved to membership.
Q: Would a union change our official status from students to employees or workers?
A: No. We are already considered employees for tax purposes; the PLRB decision and unionization only impacts whether or not we have the right to organize a union under Pennsylvania law. Graduate assistants are both students and employees. Unionization will not impact our FICA tax exemption, and will not impact our exemption for taxes on tuition remission. Many staff and faculty employed by Penn State enjoy tax-free tuition remission for dependents.
Q: Will we be required to sign a letter declaring whether we receive academic benefit?
A: No. Temple’s “academic benefit” forms are unique to Temple. In the PLRB’s election order, the definition of Penn State’s bargaining unit did not contain any academic benefit restriction for research assistants.
Q: Will a contract limit the hours I can work?
A: No. You can work beyond the contracted hours if you wish. However, a contract provides recourse for those that are involuntarily forced to work beyond the contract.
Q: What about my advisor or PI?
A: 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. It is against the law for employers, including advisors and PIs, to use threats, intimidation, or retaliation against employees who engage in union organizing activities.
Q: Can international students join?
A: 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.
Q: How does this impact international students? I would not foresee any changes/benefits since the rules and guidelines that govern international students (particularly visa status etc.) are different from US citizens.
A: International students have the same rights to union membership and activity as domestic students. International students would be protected under the contract as well. Many graduate unions have undertaken efforts to specifically protect international students, such as negotiating expedited grievance procedures to protect international students in jeopardy of losing their assistantship and visa. Other graduate unions have taken steps to bargain benefits specific to international students, such as per diems for required trainings on English Language Proficiency (see Michigan’s contract for an example).
CGE has foregrounded international student issues in our work, including bringing an immigration attorney to Penn State to talk to international students after the Muslim Ban was introduced. We also worked with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and our affiliate National Education Association to fight the ban. We remain committed to fighting for international student rights at Penn State.
Q: What about dues?
A: If we vote to have a union, our dues will be approximately $16 per month. Dues will be waived until we negotiate and ratify our contract through a majority vote of the membership. Dues go to providing services for members, such as free legal representation, union representation, member benefits, professional development, leadership development, and legislative advocacy.
Q: Do I have to join or pay dues?
A: No. Union membership is entirely voluntarily, and there will be no “fair share” or “agency” fees due to a pending Supreme Court decision. Only members will pay fees. The union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit regardless of membership status.
Q: Why are union dues so low compared to other B1G/AAU schools? If dues are additionally optional, how could this be enough money to support the costs of the bargaining process?
A: Dues-paying membership is always your choice- but we encourage everyone to join! The more members we have, the stronger we are.
Other B1G/AAU schools are usually organized with the United Autoworkers or American Federation of Teachers. We are affiliated with the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the National Education Association, which calculate dues differently (something taken into consideration in affiliation!) Support for our member-led bargaining efforts is provided by PSEA staff, inclusive of organizers, bargaining specialists, and researchers that work with higher education and K-12 locals throughout Pennsylvania. All support is utilized at the direction of our elected, graduate-employee leadership.
Q: I just read about dues being voluntary. Can you provide your source for this, because I don't know how a union would work that way.
A: The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) outlawed the "closed shop," the term for a workplace in which dues-paying union membership is required for employment. Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) created a compromise called the "agency shop" in which non-members would pay an "agency fee," an amount smaller than union dues to help cover the cost of bargaining and maintaining the contract. Allowing agency fee arrangements in the public sector was left to the States to determine.
Pennsylvania passed the Public Employee Fair Share Fee Law (1993), which allowed agency fees if unions and employers negotiated them in to a contract. Many public sector union locals across Pennsylvania do not charge agency fees, as they are not in their contracts.
Janus v. AFSCME (2018) will be heard by the Supreme Court February 26th, and consensus opinion holds that the conservative majority will overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education by this June, making "agency fees" illegal for public sector unions nationwide. What this means: all unionized public sector workplaces, including Penn State, will be "open shops," in which bargaining unit employees that decline to become union members will not pay for their representation, but will be entitled to protection under the union contract.
By the time that CGE begins to negotiate a contract, agency fees will be unconstitutional, and fees will only be paid to the union if an employee chooses to become a member. We encourage everyone to join! Our union is stronger when we’re united.
Q: There has been many questions regarding whether dues will be mandatory and/or whether there will be an agency fee for non-union members. Currently the agency fee question for public sector employees has a case in front of the Supreme Court. This has been the basis for suggesting dues will be voluntary. However, Penn State employees are not public sector employees (e.g. not hired by the state). How does this change in status affect whether dues will be mandatory or voluntary? What is the process for private unions for deciding as such? And what position will CGE take, assuming it is a private union?
A: The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled that Penn State employees and employees of state-related institutions are public sector employees, and Penn State has not contested that it is a public employer as defined under the law.
This was agreed upon by both parties in the first day of the PLRB hearings, found here.
HEARING EXAMINER: Wait one second. Do the parties agree that Penn State is a public employer?
ATTORNEY CANAMUCIO (CGE): Yes.
ATTORNEY FARMER (PSU): Yes.
Q: Hi, I have a question about dues. How do you already how much they will be, and would they be subject to increase? Would you be able to predict whether your first contract negotiation demands a raise that would offset that $193 per year?
A: PSEA/NEA have set dues levels, and have provided a figure for what our dues levels will be. They are subject to increase based upon a vote of the House of Delegates, the legislative body (which we will have representation in proportional to our membership) for PSEA.
Q: Would all employees be paid the same? Will my stipend go down?
A: No. A review of union contracts, many of which can be found here, shows that graduate unions typically negotiate a minimum stipend, and different pay grades – such as the ones Penn State currently utilizes. Budget allocation for graduate stipends is small, and one of many budget items in a large, multibillion dollar institution. Penn State has adjusted stipends upward in the past, including the minimum stipend, without lowering higher-paying stipends to compensate. Our union could bargain to better prioritize funding for graduate assistants.
Q: How do I respond to STEM friends who believe they will get the short end of the funding stick if we vote to unionize?
A: The goal of the union is to make sure everyone is doing well – including STEM graduate assistants! We understand why this may cause nervousness, and it’s a common concern.
There are some important things to consider. First, graduate funding is not zero sum – graduate assistant funding is a small budget line in a multibillion dollar institutional budget. Raising stipends one place does not necessarily mean that the funds must come from someone else's stipend.
Second, there have been adjustments to graduate assistant stipends in the past – including minimum stipends – without a negative impact on certain assistant pay grades. Bargaining wouldn’t change that dynamic; it would just give us input on those adjustments, ensure that they're consistent over time, and ensure that they’re made as negotiated.
Third, it’s not in anyone’s interest to lower stipends! We want to make sure graduate assistants get paid competitively, and departments want to make sure funding packages are attractive.
Fourth, we’ve reached out to other graduate unions, and they have not encountered any issues with graduate stipends getting adjusted downward to compensate for raises in the minimum stipend.
We understand this is a cause for concern. If there are any additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us, and we’ll try to help.
Q: Who would be eligible to join the union?
A: The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has recognized a unit defined as follows:
“The unit appropriate for the purpose of collective bargaining is a subdivision of the employer unit comprised of: all full-time and regular part-time professional employees who are graduate students on graduate assistantship or traineeship and who perform services as teaching assistants, research assistants, or administrative support assistants and excluding graduate students on fellowship, management level employees, supervisors, first level supervisors, confidential employees and guards as defined in the Act.”
In other words, graduate assistants and trainees – inclusive of teaching assistants, research assistants, and administrative support assistants – will be part of the bargaining unit, and will vote on the union.
Q: I’m a graduate fellow. Would I be eligible?
A: Not as long as you are on fellowship. If you become a teaching assistant, research assistant, or administrative support assistant, you will become part of the bargaining unit.
Q: How active would I, the typical grad student, have to be in the union?
A: As much or as little as you’d like to be! We encourage everyone to get involved, but it’s not a requirement.
Q: How would our union be governed?
A: We would have the right to decide how our union is structured. All graduate employees have a voice in the union process, and our union is committed to member democracy. Our current union leaders are graduate employees, and future leaders will always be graduate employees. We are affiliated with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), which provides resources, guidance, and support. We will have the right to participate in member governance of PSEA at the region and state level.
Q: How will the representation structure of the union be determined? How will representatives for the bargaining team be chosen? Will there be an effort to ensure diverse representation from a variety of colleges, majors, and graduate positions, and if so, how will this practically be implemented?
A: It will be determined through democratic vote – so it’s up to us!
Typically, graduate unions have “Department Representatives” who are elected by the membership of that department. Those representatives communicate issues and concerns to the elected leadership, and are the first point of contact for graduate assistants that have issues or concerns. Department Representatives will often meet as a group called a “Steward’s Meeting” or “Representative Assembly” to discuss issues and legislate for the union local.
For bargaining teams, there are several approaches. Sometimes, bargaining teams accept anyone that wishes to be a part of the team. Other times, members of the team are elected. There is an expectation that members of the team will be demographically representative, representative across different academic disciplines and job categories, and representative of international students; some graduate unions codify requirements (gender/racial diversity, among other criteria) in their Constitution to ensure that this happens.
We are and will remain committed to a transparent, member-driven, democratic union that reflects the concerns of all members of the graduate assistant community. Union democracy means getting involved, and we encourage everyone to attend meetings and make their voice heard!
Q: What sort of other issues could a union address?
A: Anything related to life as a graduate assistant! There are subjects (wages, benefits, and working conditions) that Penn State is required to negotiate with your union. However, unions can negotiate and advocate on a wide array of issues. The union will not be able to negotiate on strictly academic items, and will have no role in setting degree requirements, curriculum, or other academic areas.
Q: What is a grievance procedure?
A: A grievance procedure is a process by which a graduate assistant may seek a resolution for unfair treatment in the workplace. Grievance procedures can provide resolution for work-related concerns that are covered by the contract, and separate grievance procedures can be negotiated to address issues like sexual harassment and discrimination. A graduate assistant may contact the union to file a grievance and request representation. If requested, a union representative will attend meetings with supervisors, and will serve as an advocate for the graduate assistant while working to reach an amicable resolution. If an amicable resolution is unreachable, grievances can be sent to a neutral arbitrator to achieve a ruling.
Q: I'm scared of what might happen in my department if I speak out, because I am not guaranteed funding. Retaliation might be super not okay at PSU, but after the hearing, I don't know that I'm totally convinced that they'd all play fair.
A: We understand – unfortunately, this is a scary reality for employees that choose to unionize when employers are opposed. However, organizing remains your legal right. The Public Employee Relations Act (PERA) prohibits “Interfering, restraining or coercing employes in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Article IV of this act,” and “Discriminating in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any employe organization. Retaliation for union activity is illegal and constitutes an “unfair labor practice.” If you feel this has happened, contact CGE immediately and we’ll help.
It’s important to add that faculty, staff, and administrators cannot ask you how you’re voting, and cannot tell you how to vote. Ballots are secret, and will never be revealed to the University.
Q: This all sounds good, but what’s the downside to unionization?
A: Unions are what their members make of them, and sometimes, that leads to lack of transparency and democracy: a clear downside that can prove frustrating to union members. However, our affiliation with PSEA was made with this in mind, as the National Education Association (NEA) has a long history of democracy and advancing member rights. We are committed to democracy, transparency, and standing up for all graduate assistants, and we believe that a democratic, member-driven union will be of benefit for graduate assistants. If you have concerns, reach out and let’s talk!
Q: What about striking?
A: 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 we decide to strike through a democratic vote. Unions cannot call a strike without authorization from the members.
Q: If I love my job and my department, how can I participate without making it sound like I think I deserve more of everything?
A: It’s great that things are going well for you! We recognize that some departments enjoy productive relationships with their faculty and competitive funding packages, and we want that to continue. Our goal is for every graduate assistant to have the same enjoyment and security in their assistantship, and we hope that you can help us advocate for that.
Q: Where can I find compiled information on how unions have affected the lives and working conditions of graduate students at other universities?
A: There are a couple of sources!
You can look through specific contracts here:http://www.thecgeu.org/wiki/ContractWiki
Columbia's graduate union has provided summaries here: https://columbiagradunion.org/faq/contract-gains-by-other-uaw-academic-unions/
There is also a peer reviewed article that describes impact, found here: https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=articles
Q: What can I do?
A: Talk to your friends and colleagues about unionization.
Tell us what your priorities are for your workplace!