Will Penn's grad students unionize?

China Byrns, 28, a doctoral student who studies brain trauma at the University of Pennsylvania, belongs to No Penn Union.

The University of Pennsylvania’s academic flow chart seemed to baffle National Labor Relations Board hearing examiner Mary Leach at Wednesday’s hearing on whether the agency should oversee a union election for Penn’s graduate students.

Describing it produced convoluted explanations from Penn’s lawyers, the opposing lawyer representing GET-UP, (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania). and Penn’s vice provost for education, Beth Winkelstein.

But the technical details of Penn’s organizational structure could become a key factor in whether GET-UP, the group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, succeeds in its effort to to gain a union election at Penn.

Penn’s doctoral students typically receive tuition, a stipend for living expenses, and health insurance, and are usually required to teach or assist in research as part of their training, Winkelstein testified. The union wants a grievance procedure and a say on stipends.

Danielle Hanley, pursuing her doctorate in political science, supports the union effort.

The big argument is over whether, as Penn argues, graduate students are students with no right to unionize, or, as GET-UP asserts, their work as teaching and research assistants makes them employees able to unionize. Decisions have gone both ways for more than a decade. The latest case, involving Columbia University, allows unionizing.

But, leanings of the five-member national NLRB panel fluctuate as the sitting president fills vacancies. There are two now.

Penn’s case could rise to the national level. Depending on timing, it could be heard by the full five-member board, particularly if Penn persuades the local NLRB to delay the election until the fall. (The union would like an immediate mail election.) The current hearing is scheduled to go on for several days.

Penn’s arguments were heavy on the technicalities of the organizational chart.

One technicality? “This is a `classic fractured unit,’ ” argued Penn’s lawyer, Daniel Johns, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia.

When GET-UP organized graduate students to sign petitions requesting an election, they concentrated on the 2,378 doctoral students in the liberal arts, communications, medical, education, social work, and design schools, as well as the biomedical group. They didn’t push for signatures from the engineering college or the Wharton School of business, with about 600 doctoral students.

Graduate students in all schools have similar responsibilities for teaching and research, Johns argued. The union, he said, unfairly excluded schools where students would be more likely to oppose it.

In legal terms, Johns said, Wharton and engineering students have an “overwhelming community of interest,” with the others and shouldn’t have been split off into a fractured unit.

GET-UP’s lawyer, Amy Rosenberger, a partner at Willig, Williams & Davidson, in Philadelphia, disagreed. Penn’s students don’t attend the same schools, don’t occupy the same path on Penn’s organizational chart, and therefore weren’t in the same “community of interest.”

Johns led Leach into the bureaucratic thicket, explaining that students shared a “community of interest” because many are enrolled in interdisciplinary programs, supervised by professors from multiple colleges. Bioengineering graduate students, for example, are taught by science faculty from the liberal arts college and engineering professors, from an excluded school.

Listening in, China Byrns, 28, who conducts research into brain trauma for her dual doctorate in medicine and neuroscience, said she sees herself as a student, not an employee. She describes her relationship with Penn as “mutually beneficial.” A member of No Penn Union, she  objects to GET-UP’s unified strategy because each school’s students have different interests.

GET-UP supporter Danielle Hanley, 33, a doctoral student in political science, said she worked 20 to 40 hours a week as a teaching assistant. “I think we’re grad students and also graduate workers,” she said. Penn would like to avoid making a decision that would alienate its graduate candidates, Hanley said, adding. “Penn wants Trump to make it for them.”