On November 2 and 3, we had our National Labor Relations Board hearing to litigate with Penn over who would be included in our union. As graduate workers, we argued that all graduate workers who perform research and teaching labor at Penn should be part of our union election. We were able to win some big concessions before the hearing even started. After initially rejecting the proposal, Management’s lawyers eventually agreed that the union should include master’s students and many students in professional programs who teach and research, as well as workers on external fellowships such as NSF fellowships. Management’s lawyers, however, attempted to carve up our unit and delegitimize grad workers’ labor for the university by arguing that some graduate researchers in labs should be excluded from our union and instead be treated simply as students. On Friday, GET-UP’s own members responded and testified that the work we do is vital to the functioning of Penn’s research labs, even when we are on rotation. Read on for a day-by-day summary of the hearings.
The hearing covered the disputed inclusion of Educational Fellowship Recipients on lab rotations (1st and 2nd year Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) graduate student workers and 1st year Biology graduate student workers). Management argued that graduate workers on rotations do not do research service for their labs or for the university, and that they’re solely pursuing their own educational goals. We know that this is a bogus argument: just like dissertation students, rotating graduate students do novel, quality research under a PI that produces service to the university, and therefore they have just as much of a right to be in our union as any other graduate worker.
On Thursday, Management called their main witnesses: Dr. Karen Detlefsen and Dr. Kelly Jordan-Sciutto. Dr. Detlefsen is the Vice Provost of Education and testified about Biology PhD student rotations in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS); however, as a Philosophy professor, she has never advised a Biology student and admitted to having only spent a couple of hours observing one Biology rotation student one time. She claimed that grad students on rotations conduct experiments only in “some cases”; and that in the rare case the rotation student progresses the research goals of their PI, they only do so “on accident.” Yikes. Dr. Jordan-Sciutto, the director of Biomedical Graduate Studies, testified about BGS lab rotations. She claimed that rotation students come to the lab to learn how to use technology, shadow other lab members, and learn how to develop a good question, and that they very rarely are successful in generating usable data. However, Jordan-Scuitto also admitted that work done during rotations contributes to publications and grant-funded projects. If graduate workers are merely training, how could they also be contributing valuable research?
On Friday, we called our own witnesses: BGS and Biology PhD students Kyla Mace, Luella Allen-Waller, Lauren Reich, and Emily Aunins. All four GET-UP members testified that, contrary to the statements of high-level University of Pennsylvania management, the work they performed while on rotation produced important research. Kyla and Luella both testified that they were included as authors on multiple publications as part of work they did in their first two years. Lauren testified that she came to a lab with a set of research skills that ended up being not just essential to her research project but unique to her entire lab. Emily rounded out the testimony with evidence that she worked independently (contrary to Penn’s assertion that a two-year long shadowing period was required) on a project that addressed a novel question in her field, which resulted in a publication and a patent that she’s listed as an inventor on.
Of course, Management’s lawyers couldn’t pass up one last opportunity to belittle grad workers’ contributions. They implied in cross-examination that it had actually been an oversight for these grads on rotation to receive credit for the research that they helped produce. Management’s lawyers also implied that all this didn’t really count as research they’d done as first years since it took them more than 12 months to complete it, and that some of this work wasn’t meaningful because it hadn’t produced “positive results.” This just sounds like they don’t understand how scientific research works! Management had zero objections to the free boost to its reputation from these students’ publications and zero objections to ownership of the patent that Emily was contractually obligated to hand over to Penn. The only thing Management’s lawyers objected to last week was that these students should be recognized for their valuable research work and thus allowed to participate in their own union.
Why is Management trying to divide up lab workers along these arbitrary distinctions that our witnesses have testified mean so little in practice? Because they know we’re stronger together. The more grad student workers we have in our union, the more value we represent to the university and the more leverage we have going into contract negotiations. Because Management is so afraid of a strong, unified grad union, they’re wasting money on bogus legal challenges that they could be using to support graduate workers. Last week, we fought back against the university’s attempts to divide us in court and we’ll continue to fight back until we have a fair contract for all Penn grad workers.