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Graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania are the latest group to join the wave of labor organizing spreading through higher education.
At a rally last week, organizers and supporters urged the administration to voluntarily recognize their union, GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania), which is seeking to join the United Auto Workers. It’s one of a mounting pile of labor disputes at Penn and comes on the heels of labor actions at universities across the region.
“They know we are intelligent, capable and responsible people — that’s why they accepted us to this institution and that’s why we’ve partnered with them,” said Sam Schirvar, a fifth-year PhD candidate in Penn’s history and sociology of science department who has been an organizer for the campaign.
“I hope they understand that we deserve to have a voice in the negotiations over our working conditions.”
What do Penn’s graduate students want?
Penn student workers held the on-campus demonstration after the union reached majority support among the 3,400-plus doctoral students at the university who constitute the bulk of the 4,000 total research and teaching assistants at the university, according to field coordinator Luella Allen-Waller, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the biology department.
The support for GET-UP far exceeds the National Labor Relations Board’s requirement that 30% of all bargaining unit workers sign authorization cards prior to a union election.
In a statement acknowledging the graduate students’ union campaign, a Penn spokesperson said the university is proud of its “collaborative culture” and noted that it recently raised the minimum stipend to $38,000 for doctoral students, effective for the 2023-24 school year.
“We believe that our graduate students’ interests are best served by our commitment to collaboration and sitting at the table together and not on opposite sides as adversaries,” the university said.
The increased stipend for doctoral students came after a year of concerted advocacy efforts by GAPSA, the graduate student government, documents show.
“The important thing many of us in this fight realize is that those kinds of raises are not guaranteed to continue with the rising cost of living in Philadelphia,” said Schirvar, one of the PhD student organizers. “We don’t want to depend on the occasional goodwill of our employers. We want to be able to stand on equal footing with them in negotiating over our working conditions.”
Grad student workers are asking Penn to voluntarily recognize the union. In its statement, the university said, “An election to determine the question of union representation is consistent with the democratic process and gives each student eligible to vote the opportunity to decide whether unionization is right for them.”
If Penn doesn’t voluntarily recognize it, the workers will likely petition the NLRB to hold an election in the coming months, Schirvar said.
This is the third attempt to organize graduate student workers at Penn. The most recent effort in 2018 ended in withdrawal of the petition — a step taken out of fear that the NLRB during the Trump administration would see the vote as an opportunity to overturn the landmark 2016 decision that opened the door for graduate students at private universities to be considered employees.
Spurred by pandemic-fueled frustrations and the change in administration, they’re now aiming to finish the task.
“Many people were feeling taken for granted or put in unsafe positions by the university during the early months of the pandemic and began to realize that the current avenues for dealing with those issues weren’t working,” Schirvar said.
GET-UP seeks financial security, improved health and dental benefits, consistent and fair workload expectations, detailed grievance procedures, and enforceable protections against racism, sexism and discrimination, per organizer Allen-Waller. It’s also looking to improve accessibility and disability justice on campus and ensure that the university reflects its student workers’ values in the broader community.
For RAs, Penn can feel ‘intimidating and monolithic’
Penn’s graduate students aren’t alone in pushing the institution to improve its treatment of workers.
The school’s resident advisers — 220 undergraduate and graduate students who live in dorms and help build community among students — are awaiting a ruling from an NLRB judge following an April hearing that could allow them to pursue a union election.
The resident advisers submitted a petition to the NLRB in March after reaching 70% support, according to Mica Lin-Alves, a junior urban studies major who is involved in the effort to unionize as part of OPEIU-15, which includes workers in social services, legal aid and higher education.
Penn argued to the NLRB that resident advisers are not employees but student leaders, Lin-Alves said, and their union shouldn’t be recognized. The university can feel like a “very intimidating and monolithic entity,” he said.
He and his fellow resident advisers are seeking to address issues including an insufficient meal plan and the lack of a stipend. Because there’s no stipend, he said, some individuals with scholarships covering housing are effectively working for free.
“Because we have the Ivy League reputation, people feel a little more afraid of advocating for what they deserve,” Lin-Alves said. “They think, ‘I’ve got this great degree, everything is going so well for me.’ People have let that slide for a little bit longer than at other places.”
Which other Penn workers are unionizing?
Resident physicians and fellows at the University of Pennsylvania Health System are also seeking to be recognized as part of the Committee of Interns and Residents, a growing union of workers at teaching hospitals.
More than two-thirds of the 1,400-plus residents and fellows have agreed to be represented by the union, stemming in part from onerous working conditions during the pandemic and cost cuts at Penn. In many cases, salaried workers are expected to work up to 80 hours in a week, significantly reducing the value of their time, organizers told The Inquirer.
Meanwhile, Penn Museum workers who unionized in 2021 held a rally last week as they fight for a contract that would improve wages and working conditions. The union and administration have been meeting regularly to discuss issues including Penn’s use of contract workers and temporary workers, as well as job security for union members.
Higher-ed strikes are trending
The spate of organizing efforts at Penn follows a six-week strike by the Temple University Graduate Student Association that won significant concessions from that school’s administration, as well as other labor fights across higher education.
The largest graduate student strike in history wrapped up earlier this year after nearly 36,000 students in the University of California system spent five weeks striking and ultimately reached an agreement to improve pay, benefits and health care.
Allen-Waller, the Penn PhD candidate, pointed to the recent week-long faculty strike at Rutgers University and the Temple strike as inspiration for Penn’s graduate students to continue building momentum among academic workers.
“We need a voice at work,” Allen-Waller said, “and a union is the most powerful and democratic way to achieve that.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to note that the doctoral stipend increase followed advocacy by GASPA, the graduate student government, and happened in advance of the recent union push.