Coalition of Graduate Employees:
We chose Penn State for graduate school because we were impressed by its world-class research, the wide variety of opportunities, and the strong sense of community. Our work educates Penn State’s undergraduate students and produces the research our faculty and our institution are known for. A union will protect our working conditions and help us build a fairer workplace so that we can focus on the learning, research, and teaching we came here to do.
The Graduate and Professional Students Association (GPSA) and other student groups play a valuable role in advocating for Penn State graduate assistants, and they provide an important voice in crafting academic policies, but they do not have the legal authority to negotiate terms of our employment. A union can negotiate a legally binding contract that will protect our working conditions, allowing us to focus on our academic studies.
A union means that graduate assistants join together as a group to advocate for our common interests. Collectively, we have more power than we do as individuals, meaning we can come to the table as equal partners in the Penn State community; instead of simply accepting what we are given, a union will give us the legal authority to represent ourselves and our own needs.
The Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) has written an issues statement outlining our priorities: reliable and affordable health insurance, a living wage for all graduate assistants, fair and reasonable workload expectations, protections from sexual and gender-based harassment and misconduct, a formal grievance procedure, commitments to racial, gender, and disability justice, and protections for international graduate assistants. In our discussions with graduate assistants across Penn State, these concerns have been mentioned frequently. Before we begin bargaining our first contract, the bargaining team’s focus will be refined through surveys of graduate assistants across Penn State to ensure that all perspectives are represented in contract negotiations.
Most of all, a union means that graduate assistant benefits and working conditions are formally catalogued in a union contract, also known as a collective bargaining agreement: a legally binding document that defines expectations for employee compensation and benefits as well as safe and dignified working conditions, and serves to hold all parties accountable to these expectations.
It’s important to note that graduate unions have been in existence for five decades, and their prevalence has increased steadily, especially over the past twenty years, at universities across the United States and in other countries as well. If unionization were responsible for any significant detriment to graduate employees, to faculty, or to the institutions as a whole, these problems would be evident by now. Peer-reviewed research has failed to find evidence of any detrimental effects of unionization; in fact, it indicates that unionization increases graduate assistant stipends, and has no negative effects on faculty–graduate student relationships — it may actually improve them (Cain 2017; Julius & Gumport 2003; Rogers et al. 2013).
If we vote to form our union, we will join graduate assistants across the country at over 30 universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California system (see a list of recognized graduate unions here), in asserting that what we do is work that contributes value to our universities. Here are the most up-to-date contracts we are able to find from other unionized graduate schools in the United States: University of Wisconsin Madison, Rutgers University, University of Michigan (summary), University of Oregon, University of Florida, University of South Florida, University of Massachusetts Amherst, State University of New York System, University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Kansas Lawrence, University of Iowa (summary), Wayne State University (highlights), University of California System, Oregon State University, New York University, University of Massachusetts Boston, Temple University, Michigan State University (simple version), University of Rhode Island, University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign (summary), University of Washington, University of Illinois Chicago, California State University System, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Florida State University, Montana State University, University of Connecticut (summary).
Graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut, who formed the most recently recognized graduate union, made a number of substantial gains in their first contract, including 3% raises across all stipend levels, improved health insurance with no increases in premiums, travel reimbursement, and a fund for childcare reimbursement.
Although these universities are in different states and under the jurisdiction of different state labor laws, they offer a reasonable starting point for what our future union contract will look like, as well as what kinds of benefits a union could bring to graduate assistants at Penn State.
In considering this question, there are several reasons for graduate assistants and trainees not to unionize.
a) The purpose of graduate education is to obtain an advanced degree, and a union could take away from graduate students’ current experiences.
The University’s relationship with its graduate students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee.
We believe that involving a third party, such as the union, may impede the mentoring and academic relationship we have with our graduate students.
Maximizing students’ educational experience and ensuring they obtain the advance degrees they came to Penn State for is our top priority.
A collective bargaining agreement would apply to all graduate assistants and trainees and could limit the flexibility of students, their faculty mentors and the Graduate School to tailor the expectations and financial support packages to the needs of students in particular programs and even of individual students within those programs.
Unions often seek to use set procedures and seniority in determining certain assignments. These types of rules would supplant the current collaboration between faculty and graduate students in tailoring assignments based on individualized needs.
For example, a union could seek to bargain over the number of hours graduate students in the bargaining unit spend on their research. This kind of a limitation could apply, even if the student’s dissertation is complex and needs more time to produce a credible scholarly work product. Faculty also may be restricted in their ability to provide students with certain research opportunities if doing so would violate restrictions related to work hours in a contract.
b) As a premier research university, Penn State seeks to recruit the most talented graduate students possible and supports its graduate assistants with competitive stipends and benefits. Indeed, to attract top talent, Penn State must be competitive, and the average graduate stipend at Penn State has increased by 42 percent in the past decade.
- Total graduate student funding packages range, on average, between approximately $50,000 and $65,000 per year.
- Approximately 97% of all assistantships are ½-time appointments, with the majority of those exceeding the minimum stipend level of $19,620 ($1,962/month) for the 2017-18 academic year (i.e. 36 – weeks), for an average of $21,762 ($2,176/month) across the University. Comparing Penn State’s graduate stipends to those of our peers using the most recent available data (2016-17) from the AAU Data Exchange, Penn State’s average graduate stipend ($20,684) exceeded the average of the five Big Ten schools with unionized graduate assistants that reported ($18,655).
- Penn State’s Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) is the equivalent of a “Platinum” plan, the highest level defined by the Affordable Care Act, and the University contributes 80 percent of the annual medical premium for individual coverage for graduate assistants, fellows and trainees, and 75-76 percent for dependent coverage.
c) Penn State has a long history of working collaboratively and positively with graduate students to address their concerns.
Graduate students have the ability to actively participate in University policy and decisions at all levels through Graduate and Professional Student Association representation on: the Faculty Senate, Board of Trustees, University Park Allocation Committee, Student Insurance Advisory Board (SIAB), Student Insurance Administrative Council (SIAC), Student Activity Fee Board, Penn State Alumni Association Alumni Council, and Graduate Council.
Graduate students also have numerous avenues to voice any concerns that may arise during their graduate education experience. These include the Associate Dean for Graduate Student Affairs who serves as an ombudsperson and advocate for all graduate students, in addition to access to support through such offices as: Affirmative Action, Global Programs and Student Affairs.