Frequently Asked Questions


General Questions

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What is GETUP-UAW?

We are graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania unionizing in order to improve our teaching and research experience at Penn. Our work as instructors and researchers is pivotal to the educational mission of Penn. However, we lack basic enforceable rights in the workplace, a guaranteed living wage, and other necessary protections. By forming a union, Penn graduate student workers are democratizing our workplace. Gaining legal recognition for our union will give us more rights and the power to make improvements at work, will legally protect our rights and policies, and will make transparent the terms and conditions of our employment.

Forming a union with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in particular means joining tens of thousands of researchers and other higher education employees who are already UAW members. Other academic workers organized with UAW include UC undergrad and grad workers and postdocs, Columbia undergrad and grad workers and postdocs, Harvard grad workers, NYU grad workers, and many more.

Who are Penn student workers?

We are graduate student workers employed by Penn to do academic teaching or research. This includes any graduate student working as a Teaching Assistant, Teaching Fellow, Research Assistant, Research Fellow, Learning Assistant, and other job titles held by graduate student workers under the category of instructional or research work.

Do student workers have the right to unionize?

Yes. Under a 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, graduate student workers are considered employees of Penn and have the right to form a union and gain legal recognition under the National Labor Relations Act. Forming a union is a legally protected process that all Penn student workers have the right to participate in.

What is a union?

A union is an organized group of employees who join together to improve the working conditions of all through the power of collective bargaining. Unions are democratic organizations that are made by, of, and for the group of employees they represent (in our case, Penn graduate student workers). By forming a union here at Penn we gain the right to negotiate improvements and secure benefits in an enforceable contract with the university that cannot be unilaterally changed. We also gain more power to influence other decisions that affect us. For example, unionized academic workers played a role in helping reverse recent federal government rules targeting international student workers.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, protected by federal law, that moderates the power imbalance between employees and their employer. It is easy for an employer to ignore an individual employee’s concerns, but when the employees come together to form a union, we have the collective strength to make ourselves heard. Forming a union will give us the right to collectively bargain with Penn administration.

Under collective bargaining, Penn graduate student workers (including TAs and RAs) elect peer representatives to negotiate as equals with the Penn administration. These negotiations result in a proposed contract called a tentative agreement which guarantees the terms and conditions of employment for graduate student workers employed as instructors and researchers. All graduate student workers will then be asked to vote on the tentative agreement. If approved, the tentative agreement becomes a legally-binding contract.

Through collective bargaining, thousands of academic employees have successfully negotiated improvements in their wages, benefits, job security, leaves, protections against harassment and discrimination, and many other terms and conditions of their employment. Without collective bargaining, Penn has unilateral power to change our working conditions. We cannot bargain as equals over stipends, health insurance, a fair grievance procedure for addressing harassment and discrimination or other issues.

What improvements have academic workers bargained for at other universities?

To name just a few gains, academic workers at other universities have successfully negotiated higher wages, better benefits, protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct, protections from unfair termination, greater support for dependent children, greater support for international employees, and more transparent workplace policies. Critically, these improvements are part of a legally binding contract, which makes them enforceable.

What is the process of forming a union and bargaining a contract?
  1. Penn graduate student workers form a representative organizing committee to gather information and make a plan to form a union.
  2. A majority of all workers in the bargaining unit sign authorization cards indicating they would like to form a union (GETUP–UAW).
  3. Penn graduate student workers deliver their authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which oversees private sector employee unionization efforts. The NLRB requests a list of employees from Penn to verify that all cards are valid and that 30% or more of all bargaining unit workers have signed.
  4. If the NLRB finds that 30% or more of all bargaining unit workers have signed cards, then an election is triggered.
  5. Graduate student workers vote to form a union and the NLRB certifies GETUP–UAW! Graduate student workers can begin bargaining with Penn administration.
  6. Graduate student workers elect a bargaining committee of their peers to represent them in collective bargaining with Penn administration.
  7. Graduate student workers fill out comprehensive bargaining surveys, hold discussions, request information from Penn administration, and gather feedback to draft their initial bargaining priorities.
  8. Initial bargaining demands are sent to all graduate student workers for review, and workers vote on whether or not to approve them.
  9. The bargaining committee negotiates as equals with Penn administration and provides regular updates to all graduate student workers.
  10. Once a tentative agreement is reached at the bargaining table, all graduate student workers vote on whether or not to ratify the agreement.
Why are Penn graduate student workers choosing to join UAW?

In the Fall of 2021, GET-UP members voted unanimously to seek affiliation with the UAW. The UAW is the leading organization in the unionization of private universities, and litigated the case that opened the sector to unionization in 2016. Furthermore, the tens of thousands of academic workers who have unionized with the UAW and won contracts for their workplaces demonstrate a proven track record of success.

UAW is the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). UAW has historically been one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. In recent decades, 100,000 employees in higher education have joined UAW, making it the single largest union of higher ed academic employees in the US. Academic employees from the University of California, Harvard, UConn, Columbia, University of Washington, and many other universities have found that joining UAW has allowed them to democratically determine priorities as a workforce and dramatically increase power to win improved rights and benefits through collective bargaining.

Will I have to pay dues?

Membership dues are important because they provide the resources necessary for effective representation. As part of the UAW, we would not pay dues until we have gone through the bargaining process and voted democratically to approve our first contract. Dues are critical for providing us with independent resources that are not controlled by the University: we use them to ensure we have appropriate legal, bargaining, community and staff support to represent all Penn graduate student workers. UAW membership dues are currently 1.44% of gross monthly income and can only be increased by membership action (the membership in a few local unions, for example, have voted to increase dues above 1.44% to have more resources).

No one can be required to become a member of the Union. 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.

Many academic worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to enforce our rights under our contract, campaign for the best possible future contracts, and help other academic workers form their own unions. Under the UAW, there is also a one-time initiation fee, which is determined democratically in local union bylaws approved by members.

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, graduate 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 is dues money allocated? What are dues used for?

Dues in UAW are 1.44% of gross income and no Penn graduate student worker will pay dues until after a contract has been democratically ratified. There is also a union initiation fee, which in other UAW student worker unions is $10 and paid one time upon each member’s initial sign-up. Union members, including Penn graduate student workers, democratically decide how union dues are spent. 

Local Union expenses throughout the year are approved by a democratically-elected Executive Board of graduate student workers. Typically, Local Unions also draft and approve a budget at the start of each year. Trustees elected by Local Union membership also audit the union’s income and expenditures twice annually.

Most of the work of enforcing the contract and representing membership is financially supported by the Local Union. The Local Union receives 28% of its dues to support the following:

  • Educating new employees about their rights and the union
  • Contract negotiations
  • Advising members in difficult situations and supporting them through contract enforcement grievances
  • Events, including educational seminars on topics like visa and immigration rights, healthcare, and taxes
  • Advocacy for public policy that supports research and researchers
  • The Local Union may also receive an additional “rebate” if the Strike and Defense fund is over $500M. To get a sense of how local union dues are used in practice, we recommend reading “Dues in Action” from the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at UW. 

Another 25.5% of dues goes to the International Union’s General Fund, which provides technical support for contract negotiations and helps other workers successfully form unions (including GETUP-UAW). The remaining dues are allocated to the Strike and Defense Fund (44%) and Community Action Program (2.5%). Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if the balance is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union. 

Some of the ways International Union dues will support GET-UP members include:

  • Providing experienced negotiators, researchers, and legal help to aid Penn graduate student workers in achieving their goals at the bargaining table.
  • Legal advice and advocacy to impact policy makers, especially those in Washington, DC. For example, in 2020 UAW joined an amicus brief that helped stop the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office from imposing a rule that would have prevented International Students from being enrolled in U.S. Universities that had switched to primarily remote learning.
  • Guidance on grievance and arbitrations. For example, UAW International aided UC Berkeley Teaching Assistants in winning millions of dollars in unpaid tuition remission.
  • Helping to win political support for our priorities as academic workers. See, for example, this letter to UC from Katie Porter and 29 other members of the California Congressional Delegation calling on UC to recognize the newly formed UC Student Researcher union.

In addition, dues help support new organizing campaigns. For example, the organizing staff and legal support for the GETUP-UAW campaign is paid by current UAW members’ dues. Also, union dues have gone towards legal and organizing resources that have have been key to major victories for academic workers including:

  • The landmark 2016 NLRB decision extending collective bargaining rights to Graduate Employees at private universities such as Penn, as well as the organizing resources that led to the subsequent representation election victory of Columbia University Graduate Employees.
  • The passage of California law SB 201, which was the culmination of a decades-long fight to extend collective bargaining rights to Student Researchers at UC.
  • A portion of dues money also goes to support political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members. For example, UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform, which would include more visa access and an improved green card process, and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: Legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues, in a program called VCAP (Voluntary Community Action Program)].
What specific improvements can we make with a union?

As Penn graduate student workers, we will democratically decide what to prioritize in contract negotiations. We are beginning this process already with the preliminary bargaining survey included with union authorization cards, and will continue soliciting feedback through comprehensive surveys made available to all graduate student workers, town hall meetings, and more. Before even going to the bargaining table, all graduate student workers will be able to participate in democratically electing a bargaining team and ratifying initial bargaining demands.

At the bargaining table, other unionized student employees have won improvements like higher wages, protections from harassment, discrimination, and abusive conduct, protections from unfair termination, more transparent workplace policies, and more. Critically, these improvements are part of a contract, which makes them enforceable and also ensures that policies that unionized student employees like are maintained.

If there are specific improvements you are interested in seeing, or things you like about working at Penn and would like to see preserved, all graduate student employees will have an opportunity to contribute by participating in our preliminary bargaining survey. Additionally, all authorization card signers are invited to contribute to the discussion at weekly organizing committee meetings. Join us to have your voice heard!

International Students

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What difference does unionization make for international graduate students?

Forming a union is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that all international graduate students are successful as graduate student workers at Penn. International students can face multiple unique challenges: misinformation and uncertainty about rules and regulations, discriminatory policies, and funding insecurity. By unionizing, we will be able to bargain for improvements that become part of an enforceable contract, including funding security, legal assistance with tax and immigration policies, reimbursement or coverage of immigration fees, and protections against unfair actions from university administration. We will also create a community so we don’t have to face problems alone and gain a stronger voice at Penn and in the national landscape.

What are the rights of international graduate student employees to join the union?

Under US law, graduate student employees doing teaching or research work at Penn are employees regardless of citizenship status. This means we have the legal right to form unions and bargain with the University as equals. In fact, tens of thousands of international students are already members of academic unions like UAW 2865, the Union of TAs, Tutors, and Readers at UC, UAW 4121, the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at University of Washington, and HGSU-UAW 5118, the Harvard Graduate Students Union.

Student employees have formed unions and bargained contracts at many schools, and student employee unions have existed for over 50 years. No unionized academic employee has ever reported any complications arising from being both an international student and a unionized employee. It is against US law for your employer to discriminate against you on the basis of your union membership or participation in union activities.

Are there any restrictions on political activity by foreign students?

All international graduate students enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association as U.S. nationals. United States law protects your right to join and organize a union.

Will signing a union card affect visa or permanent residency applications that I may make in the future?

All international graduate student employees have the same right to join and participate in unions as US permanent residents and citizens. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is legally prohibited from asking you questions about your union membership and activity. In addition, it is illegal for the university to retaliate against student workers unionizing by withholding enrollment or immigration documents. Out of tens of thousands of international students, postdocs, and researchers that are part of UAW, there has never been any reported instances of participation in a union negatively impacting visa or permanent residency applications.

Potential Impacts

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Why do we need a union when we have university affiliated advocacy organizations like GAPSA?

Only a union with collective bargaining rights has the power to negotiate a binding, enforceable contract with an employer as equals. Many graduate student workers involved in GETUP-UAW also belong to other advocacy organizations and believe those groups do, and will continue to do, very important work. However, only by forming a union can we collectively bargain an enforceable contract over the terms and conditions of our work as employees of Penn.

If you are part of another advocacy organization and have questions, feedback, or would like to discuss how we can work together for a better Penn, please do not hesitate to contact us!

What does “exclusive representation” mean?

Exclusive representation means that the union Penn graduate student workers are forming, GETUP-UAW, is the union for all Penn graduate student workers. If the union is formed, student workers will elect a bargaining team (made up of graduate student workers) to negotiate with Penn administration and reach a Tentative Agreement. A majority vote among union members ratifies the tentative agreement into a contract. Without exclusive representation, Penn administrators could undermine the bargaining process by negotiating with an organization other than the democratically elected bargaining team chosen by graduate student workers.

Will a union limit supervisors’ ability to provide additional wage increases?

With a union, Penn graduate student workers will decide what kinds of salary protections and/or increases to bargain for. For example, in the case of UAW 4121 (the Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at University of Washington), the contract sets a base rate for Research Assistants, and departments are free to set wages at a higher rate. For UAW 5810, the contract for Postdocs at UC sets minimum salary levels and explicitly states that “nothing shall preclude the University from providing compensation to Postdoctoral Scholars at rates above those required.” 

No union for academic employees has bargained a contract that requires all union members to make the same wages.

Will forming a union cause Penn to reduce benefits or lower pay?

Once a union is formed, Penn cannot unilaterally alter any terms and conditions of employment—including pay and benefits. For example, Penn administration could not reduce our health care benefits after we file for a union unless graduate student workers agree to such a reduction. This is one of many ways that Federal Law requires employers, like Penn, to bargain in good faith.

Instead, changes to terms and conditions of employment are subject to collective bargaining, through which we, as unionized graduate student workers, will have the power to negotiate with Penn administrators as equals and democratically approve an enforceable contract.

Will there be fewer positions available if graduate student workers get raises?

Crucial to successfully bargaining a contract will be developing thoughtful bargaining proposals and assessing their impact through research and requesting information from Penn administration. All bargaining decisions will be made by graduate student workers, including what proposals to make in bargaining, and whether to approve any proposed contract.

Other unions of academic employees have successfully won wage increases without leading to a decrease in the number of available jobs. As an example, unionized Postdocs at the University of California have won 45% in wage increases since 2010, while over the same span the number of Postdocs employed by the University of California has increased from around 5,800 to 7,000. UC Postdocs have also continuously campaigned for increases in Federal research funding, the primary source of funding for their positions. 

Finally, graduate student workers have more power to protect jobs through collective action and the protections of an enforceable contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action inconsistent with job offers accepted by the employee. Through unionization, Penn graduate student workers will be able to act collectively to preserve our positions with the backing of other unionized academic employees and the larger UAW International Union.

Will forming a union limit graduate student workers’ direct relationship with advisors?

As a union, we will be negotiating with the Penn administration, not with our advisors, PIs, and supervisors, because it is the policies of the University that define the conditions of our employment. We should not expect that our day-to-day interaction with faculty supervisors will change significantly, except that we will have more transparency in expectations and enforceable protections should something go awry.

Research has shown that when student employees unionize, the relationship between advisors and students is not negatively impacted. In fact, it may lead to more positive relationships because a union contract can clarify policies around wages, vacation, sick days, holidays, etc.

Will having a union mean I’m only allowed to work a certain number of hours?

We, as graduate student workers, will democratically decide on the terms of employment that most benefit our ability to perform teaching and research at a high level. Recent contracts negotiated by other UAW academic unions have emphasized protections against excessive workload that nonetheless retain flexibility. For example:

The contract for Graduate Teaching and Research Assistants at the University of Washington protects against excessive workload by setting an hourly limit to the amount of work that may be assigned, but allows work assignments for Research Assistants to exceed their hourly limit if that work contributes to their dissertation project. UC Postdocs chose not to bargain for an hourly limit to their workload. Instead, the contract for Postdocs at UC protects against excessive, unnecessary workload by stating “work schedules must be reasonable, and related to research needs.”

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. Furthermore, such standards do not have to be universal across the university. It will be up to graduate student workers to decide together what will make the most sense for us.

What happens if Penn graduate student workers vote down a contract?

If graduate student workers do not ratify the Tentative Agreement reached between their elected bargaining team and Penn administration, then the bargaining team will return to the negotiating table. Contract ratification is often the subject of rigorous democratic discussion, with “vote yes” and “vote no” campaigns making the case for or against ratification. During negotiations themselves, the elected bargaining team is expected to continuously communicate with and collect feedback from all student workers. Likewise, participation in the process from all graduate student workers is essential to successful contract negotiations.

Will Penn student workers have to go on strike?

As graduate student workers, we may decide to go on strike if the Penn administration acts in bad faith or refuses to agree to a fair contract. Effective strikes require broad participation and support, and are generally planned well in advance. Since we are joining UAW, a strike must be authorized by at least a two-thirds vote of GET-UP members.

Many union contracts have been successfully negotiated without resorting to a strike. For example, UC Postdocs and UC Academic Researchers (UAW 5810) both negotiated strong contracts in 2016 and 2019 respectively without striking, but were prepared to strike if necessary.

In other cases, student employees have chosen to go on strike in response to stalled contract negotiations or their employer acting in bad faith. In April 2018, Columbia student workers (GWC-UAW) voted to go on a recognition strike when the university illegally refused to bargain with their union, and voted again to go on strike in March 2021 for a fair contract. In December 2019, 90.4% of Harvard graduate student workers (HGSU-UAW 5118) voted to authorize a strike, and then went on strike for recognition from the university. In Spring 2021, 96% of graduate student workers at NYU (GSOC-UAW 2110) voted to go on strike for a fair contract.

Will I face negative consequences if I join the union?

The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of workers like us to unionize and it is illegal for the university to retaliate against us for unionizing. Your department cannot threaten you, fire you, or not renew your employment status due to your union support. In addition, it is unlawful for your advisor or department to withhold professional opportunities due to your union participation (such as authorship, permission to graduate, communication with collaborators, etc).