How would unionization affect my work schedule? Can students work more than 20 hours a week if they want to do so?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
It’s our union’s purpose to represent its members and advocate for our needs, not to micromanage its members’ daily schedules. A union contract does not require graduate assistants to log working hours, nor does it require anyone else to log graduate assistants’ hours for them. It does not impose any restrictions that prevent graduate assistants from working long hours, working unconventional schedules, working weekends, or attending conferences. Graduate assistants who choose to work more hours than required by their assignment are under no obligation to contact the union or file a grievance. If you do not contact your union representative for help, your work schedule will not be affected.
A union establishes protections for graduate assistants who experience violations of the contract. For example, if a graduate assistant’s advisor/supervisor is demanding they work more hours than their assignment requires, the graduate assistant has the option of contacting the union to file a grievance. If requested, a union representative will attend meetings between the graduate assistant and supervisor(s), and will serve as an advocate for the graduate assistant while working to reach an amicable resolution that either reduces the expected work hours, or increases compensation accordingly. If an amicable resolution is unreachable, the grievance can be sent to a neutral arbitrator to achieve a ruling. The union will only step in if/when contacted by the graduate assistant.
At this point, neither the University nor the union can say if students will be able to work additional hours if they wanted to, as terms and conditions like hours and schedules could be subject to bargaining and negotiation, if a union is elected. Currently in some programs, graduate assistants are assigned less than the standard 20 hours a week for their appointment and the activities are flexible. In other programs, students are allowed a semester or two off with no assistantship expectations, while still receiving their assistantship, in order to write their dissertation. These practices could potentially violate a collective bargaining agreement depending upon the terms related to work hours, which could be strictly regulated.
What we do know is that both the University and all graduate assistants and trainees would need to act in compliance with the terms of the contract. We could be prohibited from working directly with graduate assistants and trainees to address any of their concerns related to their own hours or schedule. So-called “direct dealing” with management is prohibited in a unionized environment. If their assistantship research and dissertation research are indistinguishable, this kind of a limitation could apply even if their dissertation topic is complex and requires more time to produce a credible scholarly work product.
Would a distinction need to be made between assistantship duties and degree requirements?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
No. In their decision on Feb. 9, 2018, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) ruled that the bargaining unit, i.e. graduate assistants who are eligible to vote for and join the union, at Penn State will contain all “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.”
Although graduate assistants at Temple University must declare they receive no “academic benefit,” such as a dissertation, from their research, this requirement is unique to Temple. It was not included in the PLRB’s definition of Penn State’s bargaining unit. All Penn State research assistants are included in the bargaining unit, with no restriction for academic benefit.
Also, we’d like to emphasize that this restriction does not mean that research assistants at Temple University are prevented from making progress on their dissertations: it means that they continue to do their dissertation research, but are excluded from the bargaining unit and are ineligible to become dues-paying members of the union.
Graduate assistantship responsibilities must conform to guidelines for credit limits and average hours per week, depending upon the appointment. For many graduate students, especially those in STEM fields, it is currently difficult to distinguish their research conducted as part of their assistantship separately from the time spent on their dissertation research. If there were a union, that likely would have to change to distinguish assistantship responsibilities over which a union could bargain from academic matters outside of collective bargaining.
At many public universities where graduate students are unionized, like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of California, research assistants are excluded from the graduate student unions. That’s not true at Penn State. For that reason, a contract could bring limitations on whether research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including dissertations, and could contain restrictions that could limit research opportunities (for example, restrictions on research hours).
How would current policies on leave (sick, vacation, parental) change with unionization?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
Union contracts establish formal, contractually guaranteed, policies for leave. This could take the form of establishing policies that don’t exist, or formalizing policies that are already in practice but are not formal employment benefits. The contract protects graduate assistants from being granted inadequate leave time, and also from being told that they aren’t allowed to take time off at all. The bargaining agreement will establish minimum leave requirements, meaning departments and/or advisors will be able to grant graduate assistants more time off than is contractually obligated. With a union contract, leave policies will be consistently enforced so that leave requests cannot be unreasonably denied.
Currently, Penn State has non-binding leave guidelines for graduate assistants, but no formal leave policies. The guidelines mention an application process for both short-term and long-term absences, and while “all graduate assistants… are eligible to request” leave, these requests may be denied “for a number of reasons.” Without a union contract, these non-binding guidelines remain as they are.
Neither the University nor the union can say how current policies on leave will change with a union. There is a common misconception that existing stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a starting point and can only improve with collective bargaining. As a result of good faith collective bargaining, changes could occur in any of these benefits. Some could improve, some could decrease and some could stay the same. It’s impossible to predict at this point.
Currently, graduate assistants can take short-term absences for up to one week for illness of the graduate assistant or family member, or bereavement. Extended leave of six weeks or until the end of the appointment (whichever occurs first), can be taken for illness or birth/initial adoptive placement of a child. At Temple University, which has been unionized for over 15 years, union members get three sick days per semester. Above three days, $56 will be deducted per day from their pay. With an absence of five days, the university may terminate their appointment at Temple. Additionally, graduate students at Temple can take five days of paid leave for the birth/initial adoptive placement of a child.
How would a union address the power imbalance between a student and his/her advisor?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
Without a union, advisors and supervisors can (and sometimes do) make excessive and unreasonable demands of their graduate assistants, knowing that graduate assistants depend primarily on their advisors not only for their degrees, but also for letters of recommendation that determine the course of their future careers. Assistantships may be terminated at any time, for any vague and unspecified reasons like “fail[ing] to meet acceptable standards of performance.” The linked guidelines are non-binding and do not offer graduate assistants any legal protection from unfair and arbitrary terminations. While it is rare for graduate assistants to be fired, advisors and departments retain the legal right to do so at any time for any reason.
Although current avenues such as contacting ombudspeople or graduate chairs exist for graduate assistants to “make their voices heard,” university authorities and administrators ultimately face little incentive to make meaningful changes that would improve working conditions for graduate assistants, either individually or as a group. A union addresses this imbalance by increasing the power of graduate assistants. When an individual graduate assistant attempts to address concerns on their own, they don’t have the power to hold advisors, supervisors, or administrators accountable.
However, when graduate assistants negotiate with administration as a large group, our voice becomes louder and stronger; when we form a union, we gain the legal authority to negotiate working conditions and hold the University accountable to our needs. More specifically, a union contract establishes a grievance procedure that protects graduate assistants from unfair workplace treatment, as well as protections against arbitrary and unjustified terminations of graduate assistantships.
Additionally, the inclusion of graduate assistant benefits in a union contract shifts these administrative components of our graduate school experience away from the advisor–graduate student relationship and towards the administration–graduate student relationship, meaning that the relationship between graduate student and advisor can remain an academic one (Rogers et al. 2013).
We are committed to addressing all power imbalances that affect graduate assistants, such as gender and racial inequality in the university setting. Union contracts often include nondiscrimination clauses that the University may not discriminate because of age, race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, creed, service in the uniformed services, veteran status, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, pregnancy, pregnancy-related conditions, physical or mental disability, gender, perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, or political ideas. This language provides protections for graduate assistants with respect to power imbalances along many axes. Violation of the nondiscrimination clause is a violation of the union contract, and may be enforced by filing a grievance.
How does Penn State currently address the power imbalance between a student and his/her advisor?
Penn State makes it a priority to establish fair and effective policies and processes to resolve graduate students’ grievances expeditiously. When a problem arises between a graduate student and a faculty member or adviser, we encourage the parties to first seek to resolve the dispute within their department or program.
If that proves unsuccessful, graduate students may file a written grievance with the college/school administrator for graduate education. The college/school administrator will then meet with the graduate student and the involved faculty member to attempt to resolve the dispute.
After meeting with the college administrator, graduate students may file a second written grievance with the Associate Dean for Graduate Student Affairs of the Graduate School if they feel the problem remains unresolved. The Associate Dean will work with all parties involved to resolve the grievance and ensure that the student’s complaint is addressed with dignity, respect, and in a fair and equitable manner.
How would the conflict resolution process for graduate assistants be different with and without a union?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
For conflicts that arise related to terms and conditions of employment, a union contract establishes formal grievance procedures. This includes issues such as excessive and unreasonable workload demands, improper denials of leave benefits, or harassment and discrimination. The grievance procedure is an established process that leads to satisfactory resolutions of contract violations. Currently, graduate assistants may reach out to employees of the University, such as department heads, deans, human resources offices, the Title IX office, graduate chairs, and/or ombudspeople. Power differentials between graduate assistants and their points of contact can act as a disincentive to report. By offering union representatives as points of contact and as advocates for graduate assistants, the union grievance procedure ensures that power differentials are minimized. Union conflict resolution processes are clearly defined. If a satisfactory resolution is unreachable within the University, the grievance may be referred to a neutral third-party arbitrator to achieve a ruling.
In cases of interpersonal conflicts such as disputes between graduate assistants, our union would help resolve these conflicts by providing free mediation services. These mediation services allow a trained neutral party to facilitate peer resolution of conflicts.
Neither the University nor the union can say how the current conflict resolution process for graduate assistants would change if a union was elected, as that would be subject to bargaining and negotiation. However, unionization could actually increase conflict between graduate students and faculty, not lessen it. Graduate students and faculty could face more stress if they lose the flexibility to work directly regarding areas of disagreement. Rather than being addressed by the student and faculty, disputes may have to involve a union representative and go through a formal dispute process. By its very nature, a union creates a more adversarial relationship, as it could become a faculty vs. students dynamic.
What effects could a strike have? If a strike is called, are all graduate students required to participate?
Coalition of Graduate Employees:
A strike is a last resort, and they are very rarely used. Strikes can only be authorized through a democratic vote by union members. For this reason, a strike only occurs when union membership believes it is the necessary course of action. If the strike is called, graduate assistants would stop working.
Strikes are legally protected under state and federal law, meaning employees may not be terminated for participation in a strike, and any retaliation or coercion from employers is illegal. This applies to international students, who have the same labor rights as domestic students; visas are not endangered by participating in strikes or any other protected labor activities. For the University to revoke assistantship and/or student status, or threaten to do so, for union activities would be a violation of federal and state law.
Strikes are most effective when backed by the entire bargaining unit. However, we believe that graduate assistants must exercise their judgment in defining how or whether they participate, and decisions against full participation will not entail any penalty. We understand participation can present particular difficulties for researchers.
It is worth emphasizing that nobody wants to strike, and that a strike only becomes a serious option when all other conflict resolution processes fail to produce a result. For example, graduate assistants at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) went on strike because their contract expired and UIUC administrators refused to bargain a fair contract. 93% of UIUC graduate assistants voted to start striking because administrators were attempting to regain the right to reduce graduate employees’ wages at any time, remove the tuition waiver protection in their contract so that graduate employees could be forced to start paying their own tuition at any time, and increase healthcare premiums. On March 8th, the union and administration reached an agreement and the contract was ratified, in which the graduate assistants retained their tuition waivers and secured a larger percentage of their healthcare premiums covered by the University, among other gains.
A strike could impact the training, professional development, research and degree progress of striking graduate students. Union members who choose not to participate could face fines by the union and other union discipline.
During a strike, the University would have the right to suspend both the tuition grant-in-aid and assistantship stipends paid to graduate assistants. Finally, the time lost during a strike could interrupt the completion of degree requirements, thereby delaying graduation and possibly requiring additional tuition payments from students to complete their degrees.
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