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Learning and Labor

The preliminary hearings ended in March. The final briefs were filed by mid-April. And sometime in May, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is expected to issue a ruling.

At issue is whether Penn’s graduate students who perform work as teaching or research assistants have the right to unionize—as some of them are trying to do. Which leads to a deeper question: just what are graduate students who do that work? The University administration believes they are students—period. Those who have organized in favor of unionization—Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, or GET-UP—believe they are employees, too.

Penn graduate students and GET-UP members Shane Duarte and Christina Collins march down Locust Walk in support of a graduate-employees union. Photo by Chloe Silverman ©2002 Daily Pennsylvanian

Given that the NLRB has ruled that some graduate students at private institutions such as New York University, Columbia, Brown, and Tufts are indeed employees and thus have the right to unionize—and that Penn has some 10,000 graduate and professional students, a significant fraction of whom are TAs or RAs—the stakes are not trivial. (The issue of determining eligibility is a complicated one, and GET-UP has twice changed the scope of its potential bargaining unit. By its current estimation, using the NYU decision as a guideline, some 900 of Penn’s TAs and RAs are eligible. GET-UP claims to have “majority support” among those 900, 30 percent of whom were required to sign cards to file a petition for an election. Should the NLRB rule in GET-UP’s favor, a simple majority of the eligible students/employees must vote for a union for it to be recognized.)

Unlike the unions at NYU and some other private universities, which affiliated themselves with the United Automobile Workers, GET-UP has aligned itself with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The unionizing drive has led to several rallies on College Green, with pro-union and anti-administration signs, speeches, and chants. It has also led to anxiety among those eligible graduate students who do not support unionization.

Some scholars believe that the NLRB’s ruling at NYU in October 2000—the first pro-union decision at a private university—was flawed and will ultimately by overturned. For now, though, GET-UP is pushing ahead with its efforts.

“The Labor Relations Board at the regional and national level has reaffirmed what most people know, which is that graduate employees do work here, and that they should be afforded the same rights in the work place,” says Michael Janson, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in political science, a TA, and a member of GET-UP since its inception.

“Nobody’s asking for unreasonable things,” he adds. “It’s really about Penn paying for what it’s getting, instead of paying very, very cheaply for a very, very large labor force.”

The University administration sees things very, very differently.

“First and foremost, we believe that graduate students are students,” says Deputy Provost Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English and Penn’s point man on this issue. “We observe that they apply to Penn to pursue academic study; they are selected for admission because of their academic records; and, in the course of their years here, whether just a few or many, they study with one of the great research faculties of the world. The relationships are fundamentally academic and educational.

“Secondly, we have observed that graduate students at unionized universities are furnished with financial support which is typically not as generous as the financial support at Penn.” (GET-UP says that argument ignores the fact that “the vast majority of unionized schools tend to be public”—where pay scales tend to be lower—since unionization has only recently become an option in the private sector.) Furthermore, Conn adds, “Penn’s packages of financial aid for graduate students, Ph.D. students, rather typically include full payment of tuition, full payment of the general fee, payment of a stipend, and, in the case of over a thousand students, payment of their health-insurance premium. In determining our levels of financial aid, we have in mind chiefly the levels of support at our peer institutions. All of these institutions—what might be called the Ivy Plus group—are competing for the best students from the country and indeed from around the world. And Penn’s support is quite competitive in that environment.”

Finally, says Conn, “we see no evidence—nor do we see why any graduate student would find evidence—that a union would contribute to the financial well-being of students. We believe that the interposition of an adversarial bargaining apparatus between faculty and students will serve no purpose either academically or financially—and will at the same time pose a significant threat to the collegial and essentially academic culture of our graduate programs.”

Those grad students on the pro-union side are less moved by arguments of collegiality. For Ed Webb, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, the main motivating factor behind his desire for union representation has to do with respect.

“I consider myself a professional,” he says. “I gave up one professional career (diplomacy) in order to pursue this one. I expect to be held accountable as a professional for the service I provide as an educator, and I believe myself entitled to be treated as a professional when it comes to negotiations over the terms and conditions of my employment. At the moment those terms and conditions are imposed without negotiation or more than token consultation, subject to the whim of my employers, the University administration.”

According to Shane Duarte, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy who is serving as co-interim spokesperson for GET-UP, the key issues are: comprehensive health insurance “for graduate employees and their dependents”; working conditions that “allow graduate employees to perform their jobs in a professional manner”; monetary compensation “that constitutes a living wage and is commensurate with the work performed by graduate employees”; and a “voice at the table with regard to the issues that affect our working life.” (According to Conn, stipends for most fully funded Ph.D. students range between $14,000 and $20,000. Health-insurance premiums for fiscal 2003 run from $1,677 for single graduate students to $6,743 for those with more than one dependent.)

Conn points to the new Graduate Student Center on Locust Walk [“Gazetteer,” November/December 2001], which cost upwards of $1 million, as evidence of the investment that the University is making for graduate students—and of the things that can be accomplished in a non-adversarial atmosphere.

Responds Janson: “I don’t think an astute observer of this campus is going to say that the improvements of the past year have nothing to do with GET-UP. It seems to me that graduate employees getting organized and talking about issues has resulted in some improvements to graduate-employee life.”

But other graduate students are less sanguine about the benefits a union would bring. Deborah Sampson, a second-year doctoral student in nursing and a nurse practitioner, has been a union member as well as an administrator. While she doesn’t claim to speak for all nursing graduate students, she believes that “being part of an employee union is antithetical to our interests.”

Sampson is particularly concerned about the effects that a change to unionized “employee” status would have on federal funding for nursing programs “that require us to be students.” And she says she has not been reassured by GET-UP’s answers to her questions.

“I’ve never seen a benefit to a professional nurse from being a member of a union,” she adds. “Our teaching and research positions, through which we are mentored and learn from professionals, constitute a vital part of our professional training, and I have not experienced any situations which would suggest I’ve been exploited or used.”

Dr. Walter Licht, professor of history and associate dean for social sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences, has written extensively on the labor movement in the United States. If a union is approved at Penn, he says, the relationship between it and the administration will be necessarily adversarial.

“The only thing the National Labor Relations Act did was to take the conflict from the streets and put it into the negotiating room,” he points out. “It’s still adversarial.”

Licht once served as dean of graduate studies in SAS, and though he is not without sympathy for some of the complaints voiced by TAs and RAs, he suggests that grad students who claim to have the best interests of their own students at heart are deluding themselves.

“I’ve watched GET-UP try to have it both ways—academic principles and union,” he says. “That’s hooey. You can’t have it both ways. If push comes to shove, and they decide to strike, the union cannot claim to have the best interests of undergraduates at heart.”

“We clearly don’t want to have to strike,” says Duarte, adding that strikes would occur “only if the job action is approved by a majority of the membership.” As for the interests of undergraduates, he says: “Our teaching conditions are undergrads’ learning conditions. To improve the former is to improve the latter.”

Licht, who thinks the NLRB’s initial decision at NYU was extremely “quirky,” says he “would not be surprised if it were overturned.”

Expanding on Conn’s argument, he notes that graduate students are neither hired nor fired as employees but rather are admitted into programs without regard to their teaching abilities (and thus don’t really fit the definition of employee). He also found the NYU decision “bizarre” when it attempted to define which graduate students are employees and which aren’t.

“In the humanities, most of our graduate students have a four- or five-year package,” he points out. “And in the first year, it’s a non-service award. So they’re not eligible. Sometimes in years two and three, they may TA, and then in years four and five will go back on a non-service award. So any given student will be in and out of the bargaining unit. This was sidestepped—totally avoided—in the decision.”

Whether or not the decision is upheld will probably depend upon future presidential appointments to the NLRB, Licht suggests. And the Bush administration is not likely to be as sympathetic to unions as the previous one.

For some members of the faculty and administration, the possibility of a graduate-employees union represents a “doomsday scenario,” he acknowledges. “I think there will be some people who will say there should be a total re-looking at graduate education. Probably there will be calls for [graduate students] to stop being TAs, though I’m not sure that’s possible in as large an institution as this.”

GET-UP cites estimates that “20 percent of the more than 220,000 graduate employees in the U.S. are covered by union contracts today.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the “primary growth factor is the changes in the academic job market and the breakdown of the traditional apprenticeship model. Graduate students stay longer, have less of a relationship with their professors, and can no longer count on a secure job upon graduation.”

“If the trade-union movement is to survive,” says Walter Licht, “it’s going to have to move into sectors it’s never been in. And the universities are there for the picking.”

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