Why I Won’t Be Voting for the Graduate Workers’ Union at Penn State (But You Should)

My name is Mehmet Ali Döke, but I go by Mali. My first day in State College was January 1, 2013, when I left my old life at home behind and moved here to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Entomology at Penn State. I was absolutely thrilled to be here and loved being given the opportunity to attend grad school at this excellent institution. In the last four and a half years I had the chance to work with some of the legends in my field, conduct cutting edge research, and enjoy all those other things that come with being a grad employee here. 

My experience at Penn State was pretty much what you would expect to experience (or what I was expecting to experience) until one day we were casually informed that our medical insurance was being restructured in a way that would grant us lower benefits for a higher cost. Now, I understand things can change and many things in life are not to be taken for granted. However, I just could not understand why there was no dialogue between administration and graduate employees in the many months during which the school was negotiating a new deal with the insurance company. Why had we not been asked for our opinion? Could we have maybe worked together with the administration for a better outcome? With these questions on my mind, I went to the very first town hall meeting held thanks to the hard work of a handful of my peers that were also not exactly happy about the process. In that town hall meeting, it became clear that the administration had no intention of changing their approach and the lack of dialogue in matters that directly affect our (my) livelihood would repeat forever unless we put our foot on the ground and claimed a seat at the table by all means necessary. So, we got to work: we organized demonstrations, we worked through GPSA, we put time into endless “task force” meetings, which only led to small victories here and there. It was clear that to get a seat at the table, we needed legal, organized representation; we needed a union. Thus, we started pouring endless hours of work into that. 

Personally, I will admit that I did way less than my fair share; for this I apologize to all the amazing people I befriended through the unionization activities who poured so much of their time and their lives into this, I honestly thought they would just crack – they did not. Thanks to those dedicated people who persisted in their pursuit, we are now closer than ever to actually have a vote to simply say “yes” or “no” to this single question: “Do we want legal, organized representation that will fight for our rights and only our rights if and when they are at stake?” In sum, do we want to unionize?

As I said in the beginning, I have been here for four and a half years and I am almost done with my degree. I just defended my dissertation and very soon I will be out of this town and this institution. So, unfortunately, I will not be voting in the election that will be held sometime in the next year. There are two very important lessons to take from my personal story and many others’ who have been here as long as I have. First, the administration’s union-busting tactics prevent people like me from voting by challenging our status as employees, thus delaying the voting process. The second lesson is about the fear I have heard from some of my peers about some individuals getting too strong and “owning” the union and abusing the system for personal benefit. The fact that I (who has been there for the whole ride to this point) and most of the people I worked alongside in this journey will not be able to vote for a union should be enough evidence that there is no conspiracy, there are no union bosses, nobody will “own” the union, and nobody can personally benefit from it. The union is made up of its members, the union IS its members. Every member of the union will be better off in its presence and nobody will be “more better off” than another. Nothing less, nothing more. 

So, please, do go out and vote when the next generation of organizers asks you in the near future. And, I honestly and wholeheartedly believe that you should say “yes” to your one chance to have that seat at that table. And why stop there? Do not just vote and disappear. This union will literally be yours, act like it! Go to the meetings, get to know your fellow graduate employees, and offer your support and solidarity for those who are in need, and ask for it when you are the one needing support. 

I am leaving and I will miss all the people and the experiences I got to have in my life here – a lot of them through the unionization effort. As I depart, I place my share of the work in your hands, and I trust you to do the right thing when the time comes. You got this!

This blog post was contributed by Mehmet Ali Döke, Entomology