Claims and Facts about Graduate Student Unionization

Listed below are several claims that have been made about what unionization would look like at Penn State, along with the facts about those claims.

CLAIM: Joining the union is optional. You can opt out of paying union membership dues and fees.
FACT: You cannot opt out of the union’s bargaining unit. That bargaining unit at Penn State has been defined as all graduate students on an assistantship or traineeship.  However, under Pennsylvania state law you are not required to join the union or pay its dues, but nonunion members may pay some amount, called fair share or agency fees.

 

CLAIM: Everyone’s voice will be heard if students unionize.
FACT: The union may decide that only dues-paying members of the union are permitted to vote on matters that impact all members of the bargaining unit, including collective bargaining agreements, election of union leaders, or a decision to strike.  Those graduate assistants and trainees who choose not to pay dues to join the union will still be bound by these decisions, despite not having a formal voice in the process.

 

CLAIM: Graduate assistants who are unionized will always retain control over the activities of its union sponsors and will ensure that the union always works on their behalf.
FACT: If unionization of graduate assistants occurs at Penn State, CGE will be the local chapter of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), an organization with over 180,000 members.  PSEA is supported by dues (paid by its members) and agency fees (paid by non-members).  Some portion of the dues and agency fees collected by PSEA are then forwarded to its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), a national organization based in Washington, DC with 3.2 million members, to help support its activities.

Even though CGE may be able to adopt by-laws for the local chapter to reflect the position of members of the bargaining unit, it cannot control the policies, structures, and requirements of the PSEA, and its rules would need to be consistent with the PSEA constitution, and ultimately the NEA.

Ask CGE how much membership dues will cost and what percentage of your dues would go to PSEA and NEA.

 

CLAIM: Unionization of graduate assistants is the best path to secure competitive graduate stipends.  Without unions, universities have no incentive to reward graduate assistants with competitive stipends or to increase stipend values.
FACT: Penn State seeks to recruit the most talented graduate students possible and supports its graduate assistants with competitive graduate stipends.  Indeed, to attract top talent, Penn State must be competitive.

The average graduate stipend at Penn State has increased by 43 percent in the past decade.

The facts bear out that Penn State is very competitive.  Comparing Penn State’s graduate stipends to those of our peers using the most recent available data (2016-17) from the AAU Data Exchange, Penn State’s average graduate stipend ($20,684) exceeded the average of the five Big Ten schools with unionized graduate assistants that reported ($18,655).

 

CLAIM: Many graduate assistants are pressured to work more than 20 hours a week on their assistantship.
FACT: Graduate assistantship responsibilities must conform to guidelines for credit limits and caps on average hours per week, depending upon the appointment.  The Graduate School has had formal procedures and a designated academic administrator in place for many years to address concerns by graduate assistants who believe that the expectations for their assistantship do not conform to these guidelines.  As we have always done, we encourage graduate assistants to contact the Graduate School with any such concerns.

For many graduate students, the research on their assistantship is indistinguishable from the research for their degree program.  Successful completion of a graduate research degree generally requires a significant investment of time and effort which, in those cases, overlaps with their assistantship.

 

CLAIM: If unionized, you can work beyond the contracted hours if you wish.
FACT: Depending on the terms of any union contract, which cannot be known in advance, assistantship hours and scheduling could be strictly regulated.  Thus, exceeding a limit on hours could potentially amount to a violation of the contract’s terms and conditions of employment.  Flexibility related to hours and schedules may be restrained under a collective bargaining agreement.  This could be problematic, particularly in the STEM disciplines because research assistantships are so closely aligned with students’ own dissertation research.

 

CLAIM: With a union, your graduate stipends and benefit packages can only increase.
FACT: There is no guarantee that having a union will increase your stipend or benefit package.A union does not have unilateral control over establishing the terms of a contract, and cannot guarantee the final outcome of collective bargaining.  Both sides are obligated to bargain in good faith (meet, consider proposals, etc.), but neither side is compelled by law to reach any agreement, or to accept any concession.

The nature of collective bargaining means that important items such as stipends, tuition awards, benefits, and hours could improve, get worse, or stay the same and students could be impacted differently if existing stipends are equalized across programs.

 

CLAIM: Strikes are rare and occur only as a last resort.
FACT: Unions want students to believe that strikes are rare.  However, strikes by graduate assistant unions have occurred at many universities, including: the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, University of Oregon, University of California,  New York University, and a “micro-unit” strike at Yale in which graduate students refused to submit final grades for students at the end of the semester until two weeks past the deadline when the strike ended.  Most recently, the graduate assistant union (GEO) at the University of Illinois went on strike on February 26, 2018, motivated, in part, by a dispute over proposed changes in tuition grant levels.  This is the second strike at the University of Illinois in the last 9 years.

No union can guarantee that its members will not be harmed by a strike.  A strike could impact students’ research and degree progress, undergraduate students’ education, and payment of stipend and benefits during the strike.

Although graduate assistant strikes are often short, some have lasted 4 to 5 weeks.  We are not saying a strike would definitely happen if the union were elected, but it is certainly possible. Consider how such a strike could impact you.

 

CLAIM: International graduate students can only benefit from membership in a union, since unions fight to protect international students and the policies that support their educational mission in the United States.
FACT: No union has the authority to prevent the United States government from denying visas, work permits, or from deporting international graduate students.

International graduate students are a vital and important part of Penn State’s graduate student community.  The university has consistently and vigorously defended the interests of international students in all these areas, and will continue to do so.

 

CLAIM: Unionization has had only a positive impact on the relationship between graduate students and faculty.
FACT: Research on this claim is lacking.  One frequently cited article (Rogers et al. (2013)) has been pointed to by unionization advocates.  However, this study has significant limitations and is inapplicable to Penn State. The researchers studied a relatively small sample of graduate students in only five disciplines: English, Computer Science, Business, Psychology, and History, and their sample focused overwhelmingly on teaching assistants – with a very small number of research assistants.

Even the authors of that article acknowledge (pp. 508-9) that “Some of the most troubling questions about the potential impact of union representation . . . have concerned RAs [research assistants] in the physical and biological sciences.”  These are precisely the students not included in their study, but a large population at Penn State, which has more than 2,170 research assistants out of its more than 3,760 graduate assistants in almost 200 fields of study, predominantly in STEM fields.

Similarly, GA unions at Big Ten institutions are largely teaching assistants, not the large number of STEM research assistants at Penn State.  In fact, many graduate student unions, including those at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and the University of California Schools, exclude research assistants from bargaining, as their research is indistinguishable from their program of study, as it typically is at Penn State.  Inserting collective bargaining into the educational relationship between students and their faculty mentors would be detrimental to the educational experience.

More information about graduate student unionization is available at gradfacts.psu.edu.