2023 was a big year for music—er, unions! Across the higher ed sector, unions in Philly and across the country won big. It was also a big year for our union in particular. We spent 2023 meeting milestone after milestone on the road to unionization. In January, after years of talking amongst coworkers, we began collecting official union authorization cards. In April, we announced the beginning of our public campaign with a majority of all PhD student workers at the school having signed a card in support of a union election. In October, we filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with support from a supermajority of all grad workers at Penn, including the majority of grad workers in each school across campus. And we’re just getting started—read on to find out more about these victories as well as what we’ve got coming up in 2024!
We started the year off with a bang. On January 30th, almost 200 graduate workers assembled at the Rotunda auditorium to celebrate the announcement of our card drop and prepare for the upcoming journey to unionization. Authorization cards, which represent a worker’s assent that we should as a workplace hold a vote on unionizing, are one of the first steps in the process to legal recognition for GET-UP. To mark the occasion, grad workers from across Penn spent the evening getting trained to talk to their coworkers, strategizing how they’d approach conversations across different schools, and, finally, by signing their union card! After that, we celebrated with a slice of GET-UP cake.
Left: Close to 200 grad workers at our card drop on January 30th; Right: Union cake
After dropping cards, organizing began in earnest. We had announced our intention to unionize amongst our coworkers, but we still needed to announce our intention publicly to Management before we could file with the NLRB. Grad organizers started talking with their coworkers and collecting union authorization cards, trying to shore up as much support as possible as quickly as we could. When we dropped cards at the end of January, just under 200 grad workers initially signed. By the end of April, over 1,800 students–the majority of PhD students at Penn–had signed a card in support of a union vote. It was time to make our union public. On April 26th, we held a rally outside of Van Pelt library to announce our plan to unionize. Graduate workers from across the university spoke about the struggles they faced as international students, as students with dependents, and as students dealing with harassment from professors and PIs. Members of other UAW unions and unions in Philly spoke about how important unionizing had been in their workplaces and how much it could help grad workers at Penn. With nearly 400 people in attendance, we showed Penn just how much support our union has at Penn, in Philly, and across the country.
Hundreds of grad workers rally on April 26 to publicly announce our union campaign. Photograph by Abhiram Juvvadi.
We took another major step towards unionization in October when we filed for an election with the NLRB. While we legally only needed authorization cards from 30% of grad workers at Penn to file our petition, we wanted our union to be as strong as possible by the time an election came. We spent the summer talking to thousands of grad workers across the university about what being part of a union could do to improve their lives. On October 4th, we held a rally to announce we’d collected cards from over 60% of our proposed unit. More GET-UP members and politicians–including Philly’s own Kendra Brooks–spoke in support of our union, and over 400 supporters gathered to once again show Management how much power we have behind us. We tried to deliver the cards to the provost and president, but they refused to meet with us–their loss! Since they refused to hear from their students in person, we stuck a letter with over 600 signatories to their door demanding they respect our call for a fair and speedy election. Union authorization cards continued to pour in after the rally and two days later, we filed 3,000 cards with our official petition for a union with the NLRB.
Left: Grad workers rally on October 4th to demand a fair and speedy union election; Right: Our petition with over 600 signatures delivered to the president’s door
GET-UP members deliver over 3,000 signed authorization cards to the NLRB
2023 wasn’t just a big year for us–in fact, it was perhaps the biggest year of labor militancy in the higher education sector in U.S. history. On the heels of the UC Academic Workers Strike, which ended just before Christmas 2022, several major academic unions walked off the job and set new precedents for contracts:
- University of Illinois-Chicago–full- and part-time faculty (strike in January 2023)
- Temple University–grad workers (January-March)
- Rutgers–grad workers, postdocs, full- and part-time faculty (April)
- Columbia College, Chicago–adjuncts (October-December)
- California State University–full- and part-time faculty (December-ongoing)
Following these strikes, among others, academic workers won pathbreaking contracts that raised wages by as much as 50% for adjuncts and 33% for graduate workers and established new standards for job security and working conditions. Tens of thousands more higher education workers signed union cards and won their elections, including grad workers, postdocs, and other researchers at, among others, Yale, Duke, the National Institutes of Health, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota.
GET-UP members on TUGSA’s picket line in solidarity with their demands for a better contract
2023 was a big year, for our union and for unions across the higher ed sector, but that doesn’t mean our work is finished–in fact, 2024 will be an even bigger year for us! Once the NLRB announces its decision on our hearing (which you can read more about here), we’re going to have an election on unionization at Penn. When we win that election, we’re going to start the process of electing a bargaining committee, determining our priorities, and negotiating with Management for our first contract. The year is over but the fight goes on!