Be Informed about Student Worker Unionization at Penn

Read our complete FAQ Here

Penn began releasing an FAQ that leaves out crucial information about what it means to form a union and is clearly intended to dissuade grad student workers from voting “yes” in a future union election. GETUP-UAW believes it is absolutely critical that all student workers are fully informed as to what it means to form a union. The FAQ below is intended to supplement the full GETUP-UAW FAQ by highlighting important information that Penn chose to exclude.

Penn Administration's FAQ

What Penn leaves out

What financial support and benefits does Penn currently provide to its graduate students? 

The University of Pennsylvania has continually increased financial support for graduate students to attract the best graduate students from around the world, including raising the minimum stipend to $38,000 beginning in Fall 2023, a significant increase from $30,547 in the previous academic year. Penn provides guaranteed funding to Ph.D. students for four to five years or more, and has established a variety of opportunities for students to obtain additional funding.

The graduate aid package that Ph.D. students receive each year includes more than just a stipend. Rather, it includes tuition, general fees, health insurance premiums as well as an academic stipend. For the current academic year, the total value of this package is $78,738 for students receiving the minimum stipend. Next academic year, the total value of this package will be $88,244, when the minimum stipend increases to $38,000. And this amount is guaranteed each year for either four or five years, depending on the program’s design. Additionally:

Several grant programs assist PhD students with childcare expenses, dependent health insurance, dental insurance, and health insurance for students past their funding years.

The University has a Graduate Emergency Fund to assist students who are facing urgent financial needs due to unanticipated expenses or hardship.

There are also a number of internal funding opportunities, and graduate students can get guidance on applying for external funding through the Navigating the Academy Program, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and Career Services.

In a city with a rising cost of living and increasingly steep rents around University City, Penn’s current financial support for graduate students is not enough. And without collective bargaining, Penn admin has unilateral power to decide if and when to give us raises. Only by having a union will we have a meaningful and substantial voice in decisions about how and when graduate student workers are compensated for the work we do.

We think that Penn’s decision to increase graduate students’ minimum stipend to $38,000 is a step in the right direction, but it has left many without meaningful raises during a period of record inflation. Many graduate students failed to see any increase in their pay because their departments’ yearly pay rate was already above the new minimum, meaning those workers have taken pay cuts once inflation is factored in.

Finally, it’s ridiculous for Penn to suggest that the financial value of our tuition coverage ought to be considered part of our compensation for the work we do. Tuition coverage allows us to learn and work as teachers and researchers, but we can’t use it to buy groceries. Unfortunately, we can’t pay rent with the prestige and high tuition of an Ivy League university. Besides, many graduate student workers pursuing Masters degrees currently have to pay full tuition despite doing the same teaching or research work of a PhD student who has their tuition covered by the University. With a union, we could fight to ensure that all Teaching and Research Assistants, regardless of degree and program, have the right to have their tuition waived in return for the work they do for the University.

What other services and resources does Penn provide to its graduate students?

Working with graduate student groups on campus, including the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), Penn has greatly enhanced services and resources available to our graduate students. These include comprehensive resource centers, such as the Graduate Student Center, Center for Teaching & Learning, Career Services and Family Resource Center. Penn also offers robust support programs for student parents. For more information about graduate support programs, please visit our dedicated website for graduate students.

Currently, Penn does not provide full dental insurance, full vision insurance, childcare, subsidized housing, subsidized transportation, visa fees for international students, or much of the other support we require as diverse student workers with whole lives to live and futures to plan. Many of us have families to support, undergraduate student loans to repay, chronic illness, or all the above. Working with less than comprehensive benefits therefore often means going into further debt. We all deserve the full benefits we need to thrive - not to mention to do our best work. A union would give us the power and legal rights to bargain for the benefits we need.

Other unions of academic employees have won significant improvements to their benefits through their union contracts. For instance, graduate student researchers and teaching assistants in the UC system (UAW 2865) established and have won increasingly significant reimbursement for childcare costs; and UC postdocs (UAW 5810) have won healthcare with 10 times lower costs than at peer universities.

What opportunities do graduate students currently have to make their voices heard?

University Committees:

Consultative Committee to advise the Executive Committee of the Trustees on the selection of the President (1 seat)
University Council Steering Committee (2 Seats) 
University Council (15 Seats)
Committee on Academic & Related Affairs (2 Seats) 
The Provost’s Academic Planning and Budget Committee (2 seats)
Campus and Community Life (2 Seats)
Committee on Committees (1 Seat) 
Committee on Diversity & Equity (2 Seats)
Committee on Facilities (2 Seats)
Independent Committee on Honorary Degrees (2 Seats)
Independent Committee on Open Expression (3 Seats)
Social Responsibility Advisory Committee (2 Seats)
Committee on Manufacturer Responsibility (1 Seat)
Committee on Academic Planning and Budget (2 Seats)
Graduate Council of the Faculties (3 Seats)
Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee (10 Seats)

Trustees Committees:

Trustees’ Academic Policy Committee (1 Seat)
Trustees’ Budget and Finance Committee (1 Seat)
Trustees’ Local, National, and Global
Engagement Committee (1 Seat)
Trustees’ Facilities and Campus Planning Committee (1 Seat)
Trustees’ Student Life Committee (1 Seat)

As Penn graduate student government leaders recently explained, “even when students are given “seats” at the table in various councils and committees, they are still frequently silenced, unresponded to, or pushed to the corner of the room.” Achieving “representation” and a “seat” on a board that is ultimately controlled and funded by Penn has clearly not worked to achieve the compensation, benefits, and working conditions that student workers deserve.

At the end of the day, requests made by these University committees and representatives are considered by the administration, which is ultimately the final and unilateral decision-maker on questions of wages, benefits, and working conditions. Students can present our case, but we have no legal negotiating power. Having a union would mean real power and voice, not just the appearance of representation.

What is the significance of a unionization election?

If the union wins the election, it becomes the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all persons in the unit, for items that fall within the union’s purview. The employer—in this case Penn—would negotiate with the union’s representatives to determine the terms and conditions of employment for all students within the bargaining unit. Once a collective bargaining agreement has been reached, all students in the bargaining unit are bound by the outcome of the negotiations, regardless of whether they participated in the election, or whether their individual interests were represented in the negotiations.

The main significance is, if a majority votes yes, Penn no longer gets to unilaterally determine whether we get pay increases, improved benefits, or have real workplace rights and protections. Like tens of thousands of student workers at other universities, we would bargain with Penn over our working conditions in order to win major improvements and protections.

Collective bargaining is a democratic process in which we elect a committee of our peers, negotiate in good faith with Penn administration, and eventually vote on whether or not to ratify any agreement before it goes into effect. The union will be the representative body for student workers and it will be run by, of, and for student workers. “The union” will be us.

Who would be included in a collective bargaining unit?

The scope of the bargaining unit is decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in response to the unit proposed by the prospective union.

GETUP-UAW is composed of graduate and undergraduate student employees who do research or instructional work, such as Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Research Assistants, Research Fellows, Pre-Doctoral Trainees, Learning Assistants, and other job titles. Student worker unions at the University of California, Columbia University, Harvard University, and others include graduate research and teaching assistants as well as undergraduate instructional student employees. Our aim is for the collective bargaining unit, which means the group of employees included in our union, to be as inclusive as possible. Penn’s aim, as evidenced by this “FAQ”, is to restrict the right of collective bargaining to as few workers as possible.

What are the issues that would be covered in negotiations?

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employers and unions to bargain over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” There is no obligation to bargain over anything beyond these items, despite what a union may promise.

Collective bargaining negotiations would likely cover the terms and conditions of teaching and research performed by graduate students under the direct supervision of faculty members or research in faculty members’ laboratories. Contract rules regarding teaching and research assignments could significantly restrict the flexibility that graduate students currently enjoy with respect to such assignments based on their interests, merit or informal arrangements, and any deviation from the contract’s rules could result in a grievance filed by the union, even if the deviation is in the graduate student’s best interest.

With collective bargaining, we would have the power to negotiate as equals and to determine collectively what matters most to us here at Penn. Unions of academic workers at other universities have secured wide-ranging benefits through collective bargaining, including:

  • UC graduate student workers won 25-80% raises by 2024.

  • Columbia student workers won neutral third-party arbitration for claims of harassment or discrimination.

  • UC graduate student workers won 100% coverage of tuition and fees for TAs/RAs working over 10 hours per week, regardless of program or degree.

  • UC graduate student workers won 8 weeks of paid parental leave for birthing parents and 6 weeks for non-birthing parents.

  • UW graduate student workers won $5000 per year to cover the costs of childcare for parenting workers.

  • UW graduate students won workload protections, giving them clear recourse to protect themselves from having to work more hours than their contractual appointment states.

  • Because of the power of collective bargaining, academic workers across the U.S. have been able to win contractual benefits through their unions far broader than wages and hours alone.

To address the administration’s second point: no existing union contract limits the ability of grad employees or postdocs to choose to work long hours on their research. While many contracts establish recourse for those who believe they are being overworked by unreasonable supervisors, they balance those protections with the grad employees’ right to work as much as they want.

How are student interests represented in these negotiations? Who will run the union?

Union officers typically are elected by members of the bargaining unit to represent collective student interests. Individual student interests are not necessarily represented in negotiations.

Representatives of both the Penn administration and GETUP-UAW would sit at the bargaining table. The union’s bargaining team would consist of a group of student workers democratically elected by their peers to represent the interests of the broader community of teaching and research student employees. The elected bargaining committee would work with experienced UAW staff who would help advise negotiations. Student worker feedback would guide the bargaining team’s contract negotiations.

By working together collectively, all teaching and research student employees will have more power to improve our working conditions. At the same time, all individual student workers will have many ways to participate in the process and have their individual voice heard. Currently, individual student workers do not have the ability to elect representatives to advocate for their rights and benefits. Only by forming a union will individual student workers at Penn have the rights to elect their representatives, enforce their rights by filing grievances, participate in collective bargaining negotiations to determine their own employment contract, and more.

I am accustomed to graduate students and groups like GAPSA that represent graduate students engaging directly with Penn in a collaborative and cooperative way to address concerns and to plan for the future. How will collective bargaining affect that?

Collective bargaining would be a fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship between Penn and its graduate students from one of direct engagement that is both collaborative and cooperative to one involving indirect engagement through the union with respect to those subjects under the union’s purview.  While there has always been direct engagement between Penn and its graduate students on matters of importance, such as stipends and benefits, during the collective bargaining process Penn will be required to bargain only with the union on these types of matters.  While negotiations are ongoing, Penn is not permitted to make any changes to stipends, benefits or any other conditions of employment without union agreement, even if both Penn and graduate students desire the changes.

While the provost’s office insinuates that graduate workers have direct and cooperative engagements with the University, we know that this is not the case. For years, our concerns about living wages, benefits, and safety on campus have not been adequately addressed. By coming together and forming a union we can engage in a more direct and enforceable process to improve our conditions.

Groups like GAPSA and others also play an essential role at Penn, and  many student workers helping to form GETUP-UAW are also part of GAPSA, SASGov, and other student body organizations. A union will not inherently restrict or limit their purview. But, unlike GAPSA, a union would give student workers the ability to negotiate enforceable contractual rights and protections.

In the case of mutual agreement, Penn is allowed to implement a change in our working conditions during negotiations. For example, if Penn proposed implementing a salary increase, we could agree, as a union, to have it implemented immediately. However, if Penn wanted to cut healthcare benefits, Penn student workers could reject that proposal. Preservation of the dynamic status quo is an important protection for Penn teaching and student employees after we file to form a union; it protects us from Penn changing benefits or other working conditions without our mutual agreement. Without a union, Penn admin can change our wages and benefits for the worse at any time.

Would a union give students the right to negotiate with Penn over how the institution is run?

No. Mandatory subjects of collective bargaining comprise only “terms and conditions of employment,” which typically include wages and benefits, discipline and discharge, and a grievance procedure. Academic policies, institutional priorities and objectives, and programs are not included in these mandatory subjects of bargaining.

At the end of the day, whether Penn admin decides to give fair compensation, benefits, and other rights to student workers is a decision about institutional priorities. Currently, Penn does not consider it a priority to treat its student employees fairly. By forming a union, we can push Penn admin to consider us an actual priority of the institution.

Additionally, unions of academic workers at other universities have secured wide-ranging contract wins through collective bargaining that include matters beyond what Penn admin may consider to be our “terms and conditions of employment”. Some examples include:

If we as student workers through our union decide to prioritize negotiating improvements over a particular issue that affects our working conditions, we can take collective action to pressure Penn to come to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith.

What might a union do for me as a graduate student?

The answer depends on the outcome of collective bargaining. Although collective bargaining usually results in a contract, it can take a long time for this to happen. Federal labor law requires parties to bargain in good faith, but it does not require the parties to reach an agreement, and there is no timeframe for doing so. There is so much that we have done together through collaboration and cooperation and without a union, including increasing the minimum stipend by an average of 3.7 percent per year since 2005, with higher increases over the past four years (4 percent or more) and an increase to $38,000 (up from $30,547 for an overall increase of $7,453), announced for the 2023-24 academic year.

Without a union, we have no ability to predict how long it will take for working conditions to improve because Penn admin can decide unilaterally whether to make changes, what they will be, and whether to notify us beforehand. For example, though a GAPSA survey from March 2022 demonstrated an urgent need for a stipend increase, the increase announced by Penn will not take effect until 18 months later, in September 2023. After we vote yes for our union, Penn admin will be legally obligated to bargain over such matters rather than having unilateral control over when and how to implement changes.

The length of time necessary to negotiate a strong first contract depends on the strength of the campaign and the willingness of the employer to bargain in good faith. For example, Penn could help ensure a timely process by agreeing on a fair and efficient timeframe with regularly scheduled bargaining sessions and a strong commitment to reaching a fair agreement. We hope Penn will commit to an efficient process

Do all members of a bargaining unit have to pay membership dues to the union?

Under federal law, a union can require everyone in a bargaining unit to pay dues or a fee (in an amount typically only slightly less than full membership dues). In most cases, dues and fees are mandatory and automatically deducted from paychecks. Students may also be required to pay a one-time initiation fee to the union.

Membership dues are important because they provide the resources necessary for effective collective bargaining. Since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are typically required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. The inclusion of a similar provision at Penn would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda, would be subject to negotiation with Penn administration, and contingent on ratification as part of our contract. We would not pay a cent of dues until we vote to approve our first contract. The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues, often leading to overwhelming majority approval of those agreements. For example, student workers at Columbia won a minimum of a 6% increase for an after-dues minimum 12-month salary of $43,100 for the 2021/2022 academic year, plus guaranteed salary increases in subsequent years.

How much would dues be?

The union decides how much to charge its members. Union dues are often set as a certain percent of the annual pay (or stipend) that the bargaining unit member receives; in other cases, union dues are a flat annual rate. Graduate student unions post information on their websites regarding union dues. Below are dues percentages at peer institutions with unions in place.

Union Dues – Percentages: Estimated Annual Cost*

  • 1.44 percent (Harvard and Columbia): $547.20

  • 1.65 percent (Brown): $627

  • 1.75 percent (Georgetown): $665

  • 2 percent (NYU): $760

*Assumes a $38,000 stipend; actual costs will depend on the dues amount set by the union, and your stipend.

All dues and fees withheld from students’ stipends and paid to a union are transferred off campus to a third party – the union.

Union dues are important to allow workers to pool their resources to successfully negotiate with multi-billion-dollar employers like Penn. In the UAW, minimum union dues are 1.44% of gross monthly pay, with a one-time initiation fee. The amount of the initiation fee is from $10 to $50, as democratically decided by the local union, and some local unions have also democratically decided to pay dues of more than 1.44% of gross monthly pay. Our local union would democratically make these types of decisions about our dues and initiation fee.  And, no one pays dues until we have voted democratically to approve our first contract.

The economic gains in a first contract tend to outweigh the cost of dues. For example, at UC recently, graduate student workers who pay 1.44% in dues won a contract with 25-80% raises by 2024.

Our dues will help support our collective power as student workers in a few ways. Part of our dues would support our local union, and the specifics on how these local funds are used would be voted on and decided by Penn student workers. Part of our dues would go to the International Union, which provides bargaining expertise and legal support, and also helps workers at other workplaces form their own unions. Finally, a portion of our dues would go to the UAW’s strike and defense fund, giving us bargaining leverage by providing financial support in the event that we, as Penn student workers, decide we have to strike to win what we deserve.

What might a union prevent me from doing?

This depends on the collective bargaining agreement and any bylaws or rules adopted by the union and applied to its members. Some UAW agreements require the filing of a grievance to resolve student research or teaching concerns. Grievance procedures not only take time but also could necessitate the sharing of sensitive information with third parties. Requiring resolution through a grievance procedure may prevent students from obtaining a timely resolution that respects their privacy interests.

Our collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated by Penn student workers, through a process involving our participation, feedback, and decision-making at every step of the way. Since our union is formed of and run by us, it is incredibly unlikely that we would collectively decide to implement any rules that would hinder our work as researchers and educators. Indeed, other academic unions have bargained contracts that maintain and protect flexible working conditions. For example, at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic some UC campuses wanted to require researchers who were working abroad to return to the US. Through their union contract, postdocs and graduate student workers were able to maintain existing policies that allowed them to continue working remotely.

A contractually-outlined grievance process is important because it would give student workers the ability to enforce our rights in situations where Penn fails to adhere to our contract. The goal of all grievance processes is to resolve such issues as quickly and as informally as possible. If Penn is interested in resolving things quickly, it will have the power to do so.

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment before I offer my support?

No, because there is no contract in place prior to the election. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions of employment occur only after an election, if the vote is in favor of union representation. The union’s platform and priorities are not guaranteed.

Bargaining is an interactive process in which both sides exchange proposals on specific articles and eventually reach tentative agreement on a complete contract. Student workers are already shaping bargaining demands by filling out our preliminary bargaining survey when signing authorization cards. 

Once we elect to form a union, all student workers in the bargaining unit will be able to participate in shaping contract demands and proposals that will form the basis of our union contract. After our election, together we will:

  • Establish the size and composition of a representative bargaining team.

  • All student workers will vote to elect a number of our fellow Penn student workers to the bargaining team.

  • Bargaining team members solicit feedback and input from all of us about what provisions to prioritize when negotiating. Penn student workers are already providing feedback through a preliminary bargaining survey on the back of union authorization cards and through conversations with each other about common workplace issues. 

  • Before entering bargaining, all student workers will ratify our initial bargaining demands, which are broad, overarching goals for contract negotiations.

  • During the back-and-forth of bargaining, this process of soliciting feedback and input continues. Bargaining team members typically give regular updates during bargaining. In many cases, bargaining meetings are open-door so that all workers have opportunities to  participate in negotiations.

  • Any potential contract resulting from these negotiations will be made available in full for all workers to vote whether or not to ratify. Usually detailed summaries of the contract are also provided.

If I object to a specific provision in a signed labor contract, am I still bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining does not allow individual members of the bargaining unit to opt out of specific rules. A union, as the exclusive bargaining agent, speaks for all members in the bargaining unit on matters within its purview, and the contract is binding on all members.

This answer from Penn admin is designed to scare student workers into believing that unionization will impose unwanted rules on their work. But we know this is false, because the union doesn’t “speak for” us; we are the union. Because contracts are negotiated and voted on by us, student workers, they can guarantee protections while including the flexibility to account for different research and teaching methods across the university. It will be up to us to democratically decide what will work at Penn, fully taking into consideration the many contexts in which we all work. Without a union, Penn will continue to set the rules and terms that govern all of us in ways that often harm or limit our research, teaching, and personal well-being.

If Penn wanted to improve a graduate student benefit covered by a collective bargaining agreement, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?

No, not unless the contract granted the University the flexibility to do so, or if the union consented to the change.

Collective bargaining agreements provide stability by ensuring that improvements are carried out by our employer. At the same time, such contracts can remain flexible so that our compensation and working conditions can be improved even between successive contracts. While Penn presents “the union” as an abstract third party here, we know that we are the union, and we would certainly consent to improving our benefits regardless of whether our current contract had expired.

How would unionization affect faculty-student relationships?

The NLRB considers faculty members to be “supervisors” acting on behalf of an employer (the University) with respect to their relationship with teaching assistants. As a result, with a contract in place, faculty members would become bound by the same labor laws that constrain managers in any union shop supervising unionized workers. This change could potentially damage the collegial relationship between students and mentors.

In fact, it was the US Supreme Court that ruled 5-4 in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University (1980) that most tenured faculty are “supervisors” and thus not protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). 

We see our relationships with faculty as crucial to our successful learning, teaching, and research at Penn. Unfortunately, the reality is that some faculty do not maintain “collegial” relationships with their students. Under the current status quo, many student workers are forced to work extreme hours or face other harassment and abuse from their supervisors. While many faculty do not have the right to unionize under the current interpretation of labor law, student workers can improve our relationship with faculty by unionizing. By ensuring that students are protected from discrimination and misconduct and are guaranteed sufficient compensation and benefits, we can build faculty-student relationships that are healthy and sustainable.

If there were a union, what would happen to GAPSA and to University committees that include graduate student representation?

Committees that currently decide issues affecting “terms and conditions of employment” of graduate students would no longer be permitted to address those issues, as the union would be the exclusive bargaining representative for matters covered by the contract. For example, GAPSA may not be permitted to confer with Penn on benefits or resources if the union is the exclusive bargaining representative for those items.

Student organizations and other university committees have performed important advocacy functions beyond the “terms and conditions of employment” and would continue to do so after unionization. But Penn only accepts the input of GAPSA and University committees when it chooses to do so. By unionizing, we would have the collective power and legal right to negotiate an enforceable contract with Penn. This is not merely graduate student representation in an organization or committee created by Penn, but real, independent, bargaining power.

Graduate students face significant financial burdens. Won’t we be better off with a union?

Not necessarily. There is no guarantee that collective bargaining will result in increases to stipends or other benefits. The only thing assured under unionization is that parties will be required to negotiate in good faith and, once there is a contract in place, bargaining unit members will be required to pay union dues (or in the alternative, a fee), which the union will determine.

We agree with Penn here: graduate students do face significant financial burdens. This is especially true for students who come from low-income backgrounds, students with chronic health conditions, and students with children and other dependents. We face these burdens because Penn refuses to provide us with adequate compensation and benefits, such as a salary to meet the rising costs of living in Philadelphia; comprehensive health, dental, and vision coverage; and childcare subsidies. Meanwhile, our teaching and research labor brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition and grants for Penn.

Penn implies here that union dues will harm our financial situation further. The reality is the opposite. We will not pay a cent of union dues until we vote to ratify our first contract. Such contracts typically include increases to compensation well above the cost of dues. We as student workers have no reason to vote to ratify a contract that does not improve our compensation and working conditions.

What policies and procedures does Penn currently have in place to address sexual harassment and discrimination? What about accommodations?

The University is committed to ensuring that all students are able to learn in an environment free of sexual misconduct, and the University regularly reviews its policies, practices and resources to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the community. The University has established a comprehensive Sexual Misconduct Policy, which covers sexual harassment, sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking. Students wishing to report an issue or complaint related to sexual misconduct can contact the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer. The Penn Violence Prevention website has detailed information regarding the policies, procedures and resources available to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence.

To address matters of race and gender discrimination, the University has established student grievance procedures which are outlined here. Penn has many confidential resource offices on campus that provide options counseling and assist students with initiating a formal complaint, including the Special Services Unit in the Division of Public Safety, the Penn Women’s Center, the African American Resources Center, the LGBT Center, CAPS and the Office of the Chaplain.

Students can report non-emergency incidents of bias or discrimination involving Penn students, faculty or staff, using the Bias Incident Reporting Form. The Graduate Group Review Student Feedback Form is anonymous and intended to solicit general feedback and impressions about students’ graduate school experiences.

The University’s Office of Student Disabilities Services provides resources to all students, including graduate students, with requests for accommodations.

The University does regularly review its policies and solicit feedback, but it is not required to incorporate our feedback. To our knowledge, when Penn updated its sexual misconduct policy in 2019, it incorporated very little solicited feedback and did not even consult with those trained in issues of sexual misconduct, including Penn Violence Prevention.

As Penn’s current sexual misconduct policy stands, there are numerous issues that make it far from “adequate”:

  • Academic hierarchies and power dynamics are not meaningfully accounted for. The Hearing Panel that considers issues of sexual misconduct is composed exclusively of faculty members. Even in cases involving a student, there is no position on the panel or in the hearing process specifically dedicated to be a student advocate. 

  • The policy attempts to address gender-based power dynamics regarding the makeup of the Hearing Panel, but fails to take into account other categories of social difference (race, ability, sexuality, etc.).

  • In the case of faculty misconduct, Penn’s policy specifies that sanctions are determined by the Dean of the school despite an innate conflict for Deans in this process given their role as representatives of the university’s interests.

  • While the policy claims that the Associate Vice President for Equity and Title IX Officer will ensure that trainings are available, in many departments, faculty and grad students receive no training related to sexual misconduct. The trainings that the university does offer are often more focused on preventing the institution from being liable for sexual misconduct rather than protecting student workers. Without being held accountable by an independent union of student workers. Penn admin will always protect its own interests first.

By forming a union, student workers will be able to negotiate collectively for enforceable workplace rights protecting us against sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault. For example, graduate student workers and postdocs at the University of California (UAW 2865 and UAW 5810) have won protections against sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault that allow survivors to file grievances over violations that can be considered by a neutral, third-party arbitrator. The University is also required to implement immediate measures to ensure the employee feels safe in their work environment while the case is considered. A union would allow us to have a real, enforceable voice in addressing issues of sexual violence and harassment in our workplace.

How does Penn support international graduate students?

Penn recognizes that international students face additional challenges. The Office of International Scholar and Student Services provides significant support to Penn’s international students, not only with respect to immigration services but also with respect to integrating international students into the University community. ISSS is available for consultations at any time.

For new international students, ISSS ensures timely issuance of immigration documents, checks in with students upon their arrival to campus, and activates their SEVIS record. International students enjoy support from ISSS throughout their time at Penn with respect to needs such as obtaining a Social Security Number and Driver’s License; challenges like visa delays or denials, or reinstatement needs due to accidentally falling out of status; and navigating unique academic or other personal situations like a leave of absence or a reduced course load due to insufficient academic progress. ISSS also provides work authorization to international students when legally permissible, including but not limited to CPT (Curricular Practical Training) and OPT (Optional Practical Training) and hosts special presentations by immigration attorneys regarding immigration options post-graduation.

ISSS is also dedicated to celebrating and including Penn’s diverse international community by developing programming and initiatives that enhance cross-cultural connections and reduce cultural gaps; increase access of campus resources and opportunities for international students; bring to the forefront the strengths of a diverse international student and scholar population; and build intercultural initiatives that grow Penn as an inclusive community. ISSS does this not only by hosting various events but also by partnering with Penn’s graduate and professional schools as well as with the Graduate Student Center, Family Resource Center, Department of Public Safety, Off-Campus Housing, Wellness, Career Services, Weingarten Center, and LGBT Center. ISSS also works closely with GAPSA and its International Student Affairs committee, with the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) and with the International Student Table for Advocacy & Relations (ISTAR) to support all aspects of international student integration at Penn.

Academic workers’ unions have already improved the lives of tens of thousands of international student workers. Although the Office of International Scholar and Student Services (ISSS) can help with visa, immigration, and tax assistance, their resources are limited when it comes to workplace conflict or providing financial or legal support. In addition to providing the kinds of resources ISSS does, other unions have bargained for additional, contractually protected rights such as guaranteed vacation days for visa-related travel, waiving extra fees faced by international students and non-resident students, and protecting visa-holders from unjust termination.

Is there an alternative to unionization?

Yes. Penn has made significant advancements in graduate student life over the last two decades in partnership with GAPSA, SHIAC, and other student groups and University and School committees with student leaders as members. Students who wish to join the discussion regarding graduate student life at Penn are strongly encouraged to become active in GAPSA, their School-based student governments, and/or University-wide interest groups. We also encourage students to speak to staff at the Graduate Student Center about issues of concern to them. These organizations have been very influential in improving the lives of graduate students and the campus resources available to them.

There are many organizations that exist to advocate for the diverse needs of students at Penn. While they would continue to do important work after we unionize, they are hardly “alternatives” to unionization. These organizations are fully funded by Penn, exist at Penn’s discretion, and have no binding effect on Penn’s decision-making. Our union made up of student workers would exist independently of the Penn administration, and the contract that we negotiate with Penn will be legally binding. Unlike other student advocacy groups, by forming a union, student workers would have real, enforceable power to make improvements to our working conditions.

How does an election work? When would it be held?

Once a union files a petition, the NLRB will schedule and oversee the election process. The election takes place after resolving any legal issues presented by the petition, which might include questions regarding the scope of the bargaining unit, students’ eligibility to vote, and related matters.

When it comes time for an election, all teaching and research student employees at Penn will get up-to-date information from co-workers and organizers in your department, from union emails and other communications, and on social media. We think it’s crucial that as many student workers vote as possible to show Penn admin that we stand together.

Unfortunately, Penn’s “FAQ” answer to this question tacitly admits that Penn admin will refuse to voluntarily recognize our union––even when the majority of us sign union authorization cards. Employers often use the time between filing for an election and holding it to run anti-union campaigns to frighten and confuse student workers and share deceptive talking points, such as this “FAQ.”

Who is eligible to vote?

The NLRB will determine the appropriate bargaining unit which will identify those who are eligible to vote.

This is correct; every member of the bargaining unit can and should vote.

I’m an international student. Am I eligible to vote?

Yes, international students who are part of the bargaining unit are eligible to vote. Citizenship or visa status are not eligibility criterion.

This is correct; international students are protected by US labor law and their vote is crucial. All student workers, regardless of citizenship or residency status, have equal rights to vote in union elections, talk to their coworkers about the union, participate in union organizing efforts, participate as members of the elected bargaining committee, participate in contract negotiations with management, sign up as union members, pay union membership dues, etc.

Who should vote?

Every eligible student should vote. Like any election, voting is your opportunity to have your voice heard. Like all elections, the outcome of a union election is determined by the majority of the votes cast. In other words, it is possible for a union to be elected by less than a majority of the total individuals in the bargaining unit, as long as the majority of those who participated in the election voted in favor of the union.

We agree with Penn admin here: every eligible student worker should vote! But this answer is designed to depict unionization as undemocratic by implying that it would be initiated without a real majority approval. But right now, Penn’s decision-making is unilateral, not democratic. Voting “Yes” in our election means moving our working conditions into the field of democratic decision-making.

Will my vote be public knowledge?

No. NLRB elections are conducted by secret ballot.

This is correct. In an NLRB election, neither the Penn administration, nor your direct supervisors, nor the union or your co-workers, will know how you voted.

If I don’t vote, am I still subject to the terms of the union contract?

Yes. Union contracts cover everyone in the bargaining unit, even if you did not vote, voted against the union or object to the terms the union negotiates. You would still be represented by the union, bound by the union contract and subject to union dues or fees.

This question is designed to scare students by implying that unionization will subject them to terms without their consent. But in fact, this is exactly the problem that we seek to solve by unionizing! We all know what it’s like to be subject to terms we did not agree to. Right now, all of us are subject to terms unilaterally set by the Penn administration. By forming a union, we will have a real say in determining our working conditions. With legal recognition of our union following a majority vote, Penn will be obligated to negotiate with us over a binding contract. We would discuss and vote amongst ourselves on the issues to prioritize in bargaining. Finally, our contract would only go into effect with a majority vote of student workers. Right now, we are subject to terms set by Penn; with a union, the terms of our work would require our democratic approval every step of the way.

If a union is elected and is not successful in negotiating an agreement, can’t students simply dissolve it?

It is not easy to dissolve a union under federal law. Similar to forming a union, there is a formal process, called decertification, to remove or replace a union. To decertify a union, students must first collect signatures from at least 30 percent of bargaining unit members. Once the petition is filed, a decertification election is held, the outcome of which is determined by majority vote. The NLRB has guidelines in place for when this type of election can happen. Decertification elections are not allowed for one year following the union’s NLRB certification. Additionally, once a collective bargaining agreement has been reached, students cannot petition for a decertification election during the first three years of the agreement, except for during the 30-day “window period” (60-90 days prior to the end of the contract).

We hope that Penn admin will commit to bargain in good faith and work with us to come to a speedy agreement with significant improvements and rights that all parties can agree to. Unfortunately, many negotiations over first contracts have been held up due to management’s delay tactics and lack of serious commitment to the bargaining process. At the end of the day, in order to successfully negotiate an agreement, Penn admin must make that outcome a priority as well.  

Despite Penn admin’s fear mongering about decertifying a union, no group of student workers has ever voted to decertify their union.