Unionization in the United States has a long history dating back to the mid-1800s. Penn State’s graduate employees hope they’ll soon have one of their own.
Today, many industries from automotive workers to nurses, to public school teachers, and even the U.S. Postal Service workers, are dominated by unions that aim to protect workers’ interests through collective bargaining. Among these unions is a growing trend of graduate employee unions, which protect the interests of graduate assistants, teaching assistants, and research assistants.
Over the last decade, there’s been a surge in the number of graduate employee unions due to increased teaching workloads and reliance on graduate students as instructors. As federal education funding has dried up, universities have been forced to hire more adjunct professors and put more pressure on graduate employees to take on more students.
More than 30 individual universities, both public and private, now have graduate employee unions. California’s Cal State and UC school systems and New York’s SUNY schools also have graduate employee unions. Now, the Coalition of Graduate Employees at PSU (CGE) is campaigning to create a union here at Penn State.
Launched in 2015, CGE’s goal is similar to many unions around the country — to improve working conditions, increase compensation, and increase child care subsidies. At Penn State, it’s hard to avoid graduate assistants, teaching assistants, or research assistants during your four years here. According to College Factual, in 2015 about 45 perceent or 2,995 of Penn State’s total 6,532 instructional employees were graduate employees.
In a 2016 survey commissioned by CGE evaluating the state of Penn State’s graduate employee compensation, they found 63 percent of respondents received stipends less than $18,000 per academic year.
These employment contracts are negotiated by stipend only, so the graduate students aren’t compensated for any overtime. While 94 percent of graduate employee respondents reported their contracts are for 20 hours per week, 47 percent reported they work more than the 20 hours per week on average. The report also highlighted testimonials from graduate employees. “It’s an absolute insult that my contract says I work 20 hours… I’ve been very explicitly told by people in power that it needs to be over 40 hours a week,” one graduate employee said. “How is that legal?”
In addition to higher compensation, CGE wants better benefits for graduate employees with children and reimbursement for travel. They also want to put controls on how much work they can take on. CGE is currently in the process of distributing interest cards and collecting signatures in collaboration with the Penn State Education Association (PSEA). Once enough graduate employees have signed the cards, a vote will be held. If the majority vote is in favor of unionizing, then their union will be established and they will file with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, who will facilitate discussion with Penn State.
CGE notes unionizing graduate employees won’t just benefit them, but will also improve the experience of undergraduates. “Nearly every undergraduate goes through at least one course by a teaching assistant. When your teaching assistant has 100 students in one semester, how can you give them the time?” CGE Chief Organizer Brianne Pragg said. Controls on the number of students or hours would allow graduate employees to devote more individual time to their students.
CGE does have the legal right to unionize. As a public university, employment relations are governed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, which has recognized the right of graduate workers at public universities to unionize. This ruling allowed Temple graduate employees to unionize in 2001 under the Public Employee Relations Act.
With the crucial vote projected to take place by the end of the semester, CGE believes graduate employees at Penn State will successfully unionize. “We are optimistic — very optimistic,” CGE Record Keeper Kevin Reuning said.