“A strong majority” of the University of Pennsylvania’s 2,300 graduate teaching and research assistants want to join the American Federation of Teachers union and on Tuesday filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election, the union said.
Penn’s “graduate workers want to have a voice in determining our working conditions,” said doctoral student Miranda Weinberg, 29, one of the organizers, who teaches and assists in teaching courses at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “Right now, we don’t have much say in how we get paid, our health insurance, and our work. We want to sit down at a table and negotiate.”
In a statement, Penn said that “we view graduate students as students and our future colleagues rather than employees, and we believe we can better support them without the intervention of a labor union.”
In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate assistants at private universities, such as Brown University and New York University, were primarily students and not employees and thus had no right to unionize.
In August, the NLRB reversed that ruling in a 3-1 decision, saying that student assistants at Columbia University are employees with the right to unionize. Columbia has appealed that decision.
The August ruling also opens a window for graduate organizing drives at private universities around the country to unionize.
On May 22 at Yale University, 1,000 people marched across campus on graduation day, demanding that the university negotiate with Unite Here, a union that organized eight units of graduate students/workers in eight departments. Yale has contested the NLRB election, arguing that the eight units prevent the majority of graduate assistants from organizing. Earlier in the month, during a hunger strike by Yale graduate assistants, 23 people were arrested for blocking traffic as they protested the university’s refusal to negotiate during the NLRB appeal process.
Graduate and research assistants at Cornell and Harvard Universities held elections, which are now on hold as the NLRB sorts through contested ballots. The assistants at the University of Chicago have filed an election petition and hearings were recently held. Activists at Brown, Princeton, and Northwestern are organizing union drives.
Timing is critical, since organizers hope to complete their drives before President Trump appoints new members to fill two vacant seats on the five-member NLRB board. Now, two of the three members have labor-friendly backgrounds, but the Trump appointees will likely shift that balance. The third board member, NLRB Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra, was a management-side lawyer and a senior fellow in the Center for Human Resources at Penn’s Wharton Business School. Trump recently appointed him to be chairman.
This is the second major union push for graduate assistants at Penn. In 2000, graduate assistants, organized by GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania), held an NLRB election. An election-day poll conducted by the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper found majority support for the union, but the ballots were sealed after Penn contested the election. After the NLRB’s 2004 ruling, the ballots were destroyed, Weinberg said.
Weinberg said she and her fellow graduate assistants say that they earn too little in their teaching or research roles to support themselves as they finish their graduate work. One of her colleagues makes ends meet by refereeing high school lacrosse games. Weinberg plays the violin at contra dances.