Unionization FAQs

Penn State views its graduate students as students seeking advanced degrees, not employees, and believes that it can continue to support their individualized needs best by working with them directly. The University is following the procedures of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) that govern representation proceedings.



1.1 What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as a third-party agent representing a specific group of employees. This group of employees is called a “bargaining unit.” A union, on behalf of the bargaining unit, negotiates with an employer to establish collective terms and conditions of employment. When a union is in place, individual bargaining unit employees can no longer negotiate directly with the employer to change their terms and conditions of employment.

1.2 Do graduate students need a union to get the University to respond to their concerns?

No. There are a number of organizations on campus – including the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) – that regularly communicate directly with the administration on issues of interest to graduate students. Penn State has a long history of working collaboratively with graduate students to address their concerns, and many significant enhancements have been made as a result of student feedback and participation with university administrators.  For example, the Penn State Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), which varies significantly from the plan provided to Penn State faculty and staff, was designed to accommodate the unique needs of graduate students, including low co-pays for mental health visits; pediatric care provided through Hershey clinics; global emergency medical and travel assistance, emergency medical evacuation and repatriation benefits; as well as low co-pays and deductibles and an accessible medical home through United Health Services (UHS) and the Fishburn Clinic, based upon significant input by graduate student representatives to the Student Insurance Advisory Board (SIAB) and the Student Insurance Administrative Council (SIAC).  The SIAB and SIAC, including their graduate student representatives, work with University Health Services and its Student Health Insurance Office regarding the SHIP at Penn State, including the selection of insurer, plan design, and mechanisms to manage costs.

 1.3 What law governs unionization at Penn State?

The law that governs labor unions at public employers like Penn State is Pennsylvania’s Public Employe Relations Act (“PERA”). PERA is administered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (“PLRB”).

1.4 How is a union chosen?

Usually, a group of workers who want to unionize will affiliate with an established labor union. Once the group has affiliated with a labor union, organizers who work for the union will collect “authorization cards.” If a union is able to collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” (proof that at least 30% of the employees in an appropriate unit wish to be represented by the union), the union can file a “representation petition” with the PLRB to hold an election. The PLRB will then determine whether the petition is proper and if so, order a secret-ballot election.

1.5 How would a union impact graduate students’ academic programs?

Some graduate students, even though they are performing the same activities, might not be treated the same because of the source of their funding or rules the union could seek to negotiate. It is unclear how a union may impact graduate students’ programs. While Penn State does not have an obligation to bargain over matters of academic judgment (see 2.5 below), it is unclear how a union may impact students’ programs and their relationships with faculty advisers.

1.6 What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is the process the law requires the University and the union to enter into should the union be certified as the exclusive bargaining representative of the graduate students in the bargaining unit.  Collective bargaining is a negotiation- both sides can put forth proposals regarding terms and conditions related to students’ assistantships such as student stipends, benefits, and required hours.  While the parties have to both bargain in good faith, neither side has to agree to the other’s proposal and neither side has to make concessions.  In fact, there are only three results with collective bargaining: you could end up with more, with less or the same as you have now.  However, even if you end up with the same as you have now, it is really less, since you will be paying dues just to keep what you already have now.  With that being said, the collective bargaining process involves a lot of uncertainty and risk for those in the bargaining unit.  If and when an agreement is reached, called a collective bargaining agreement (or CBA), that document dictates all of the terms and conditions for any student with an assistantship or traineeship that is covered by the CBA.  The University, the union and the students would all have to abide by its terms, as there is no ability to negotiate separate, individual agreements amongst themselves.

1.7 What is meant by the term “bargaining in good faith?”

To bargain in good faith means that both the employer and the union must try to make a serious effort to resolve differences, reach an agreement and sign a contract.  It does not mean that either the employer or the union is required to agree to any demand made by the other.

Therefore, just because the union makes promises does not mean that they will be fulfilled in the contract.  Something only becomes part of the contract if both sides agree to it.

1.8 Can employees just “try” the union for a while?

Once elected and certified by the PLRB as the exclusive bargaining representative of a group of employees, a union will always be the exclusive representative unless it is decertified by the PLRB, which cannot happen for at least a year after the union is certified. Decertification of a union is a rare occurrence under PERA.

A decertification petition can be filed by a group of bargaining unit employees and must include evidence that at least 30% of the employees in the unit desire not to be represented by the union. This is often a challenging burden to meet. Alternatively, an employer can file a decertification petition if it has a good faith belief, based on evidence, that a majority of the employees in the unit no longer desire to be represented by the union.

There are specific rules in place about when a decertification petition can be filed. If the PLRB finds the decertification petition is proper, it will then conduct an election among the employees in the bargaining unit to determine whether a majority of the employees wish to continue to be represented by the union.

While a union may expend its financial resources in opposing a decertification petition, an employer is legally prohibited from giving financial or other assistance to employees attempting to decertify a union.



2.1 Could graduate student assistants “opt out” of the union if one is certified?

No. Election results bind every graduate student in the bargaining unit. This includes graduate students who do not vote, graduate students who vote “no,” and future graduate students who are not even admitted at the time the election takes place.  A simple majority (50% + 1) of those who actually vote (among those deemed by the PLRB as eligible to vote) would determine the result for all graduate students in the bargaining unit. If unionization were to occur as a result of an election, all graduate students in the bargaining unit would be bound by the terms of any collective bargaining agreement, regardless of whether or how the gradate student voted.

2.2 Would teaching and research assistants be included in the bargaining unit, even if they are funded solely by external funds?

The hearing examiner has found the unit appropriate for collective bargaining to be comprised of the following groups of graduate students (who would then be eligible to vote in an election to determine if they wish to be represented by the Union): All graduate students on graduate assistantships or traineeships, excluding, “graduate students on fellowship, management level employes, supervisors, first level supervisors, confidential employes and guards as defined in the Act.”

2.3 Could involvement with university governing bodies be impacted if graduate students unionize?

It is very possible. If a union is elected as the exclusive bargaining representative, the union may be the sole voice of graduate students in the bargaining unit, and thus, the University and faculty may be limited or restricted in dealing with graduate students on councils and other governing bodies. For example, the Graduate & Professional Student Association would no longer be able to discuss and negotiate changes to stipends, benefits, or other terms and conditions of assistantships. Only the union would be allowed to do that.

2.4 How can we know what things would change if there is a union and who would be most impacted?

There is no way to know at this point what changes would occur and who would be most impacted should graduate assistants become unionized.

If a union were ultimately certified, it would have the right to bargain over terms and conditions of employment, but not have the right to bargain over matters that are purely academic or left to the management discretion of the University. There is almost no precedent in Pennsylvania, however, for determining what topics are considered terms and conditions of employment for graduate students whose teaching and research activities are part of their academic training.

Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election. Therefore, at this point before an election has taken place, there is no way for the University to know what proposals the union would seek to make in bargaining and no way for you to know what a collective bargaining agreement may ultimately look like or what subjects it would touch upon.

What we do know is that unions bargain for the collective group, not for individual students, and a collective bargaining agreement would apply to all covered students and limit the flexibility of students, their faculty mentors and the Graduate School to tailor the expectations and financial support packages to the needs of students in particular programs and even of individual students within those programs.  Faculty may be restricted in their ability to provide students with certain research opportunities if doing so would violate restrictions related to work hours in a contract.

2.5 If graduate students unionize, what matters are not subject to negotiations with Penn State?

We do not know for sure. There is no precedent from the Pennsylvania courts for deciding what are terms and conditions of employment for graduate students whose teaching and research are part of their academic training. The following is a list of some of the things that Penn State believes would not be subject to negotiations between a union and Penn State: (1) who is to be appointed to an assistantship or removed from an assistantship; (2) academic requirements for graduate students; (3) academic judgments by faculty and administrators; (4) budgeting and allocation of funds; (5) number and distribution of graduate student assistants; (6) selection and retention of faculty and supervisory personnel; and (7) the number of graduate student assistant positions at any specific funding level. Ultimately, this may be up to the PLRB and/or the courts.

2.6 Faculty both evaluate the teaching and research work of graduate students and determine their academic progress in their degree programs. Would the education component of this experience be compromised in any way if graduate students had collective bargaining rights?

Graduate students come to Penn State for a world class education and to learn alongside internationally-recognized faculty. This often also includes learning valuable skills and experience to prepare graduate students for future careers in the academy, in industry or other sectors by teaching and/or performing original research. Graduate students are paired with faculty mentors who help support those goals by providing training in research methodologies and pedagogy, evaluating students’ performance of teaching and research responsibilities, and providing feedback for improvement and development of advanced skills. Often, the teaching and research is intertwined with graduate students’ teaching, research or other requirements for their own degrees.

We believe that adding a third party, like the union, in this relationship may compromise the educational component of the faculty-graduate student relationship. The union may seek to be involved in the feedback graduate students are given on their teaching and research, which could impede the collaborative nature of the faculty/student relationship, where both parties share the common goal of the student achieving a graduate degree. The union’s goal is not necessarily to ensure its bargaining unit members all obtain their advanced degrees, even though that is the sole reason why graduate students come to the University.

In addition, having a union would limit the ability of faculty, who could be considered supervisors under the law, and the Graduate School to work directly with students to address any concerns that touch on areas where academic issues and assistantships overlap or intertwine.

2.7 How will a union impact graduate students’ ability to work directly with their faculty adviser and the Graduate School on tailoring their assistantship?

Unions bargain for the group, not for individual students. A collective bargaining agreement would apply to all graduate students in the bargaining unit and limit the flexibility of students, their faculty mentors and the Graduate School to tailor the expectations and financial support packages to the needs of students in particular programs, and even of individual students within those programs. Faculty also may be restricted in their ability to provide students with certain research opportunities if doing so would violate restrictions related to work hours in a contract.

2.8 Would unionization relieve conflicts between graduate students and their professors if and where they exist?

Unionization could actually increase conflict between graduate students and faculty, not lessen it. Graduate students and faculty could face more stress if they lose the flexibility to work directly regarding areas of disagreement. By its very nature, a union creates a more adversarial relationship, as it could become a faculty vs. students dynamic.

2.9 Will the union dictate the number of hours graduate students serve as graduate research assistants in the sciences?

A union could seek to bargain over the number of hours graduate students in the bargaining unit spend on their research. This kind of a limitation could apply, even if the dissertation topic is complex and requires more time to produce a credible scholarly work product.

2.10 If a union is certified, will graduate students’ stipends and teaching remuneration increase? What about benefits?

There is a common misconception that existing stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a starting point and can only improve with collective bargaining. There is no guarantee that any union can obtain improvements in any economic area. The law also does not require either a union or the University to agree to any contract proposal. The minimum graduate student stipend at Penn State is already higher than the stipends in the contract of the graduate assistant union at Temple University (TUGSA), where graduate assistants have been unionized for more than 15 years.

2.11 Can the University make changes to address graduate student concerns without negotiating with a union if one is certified?

If a union is certified, the University cannot make changes to address graduate student concerns that touch on terms and conditions of employment without first negotiating with the union. In addition, the University may be limited in its ability to make any changes while the negotiations for a contract are going on, including improvements in stipends or benefits.

Over the past few years, the University has made changes to stipends and benefits to address concerns raised by graduate students on both a University-wide level and in individual programs to recruit and retain the most talented graduate students to our world-class programs. With a union, the University loses the ability to make these kinds of changes without having to negotiate them with a third party who may be unwilling to make changes which only benefit certain students or programs.

2.12 Will graduate students have to pay union dues, and if so, how much?

Similar to any business, unions collect fees for services. For unions, this comes in the form of membership dues and initiation fees or fair share fees. Each union establishes its own dues formula. As an example, graduate students at New York University pay two percent of their total compensation to the union as dues each semester they hold a teaching or research position. There can also be an initiation fee when individuals first join the union.  According to the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) – the union that seeks to represent Penn State graduate assistants – membership in the union requires that dues be paid to the PSEA, as well as to the National Education Association (NEA) and to PSEA’s local organization in the central region of Pennsylvania.  Graduate students should ask the Coalition of Graduate Employees for more information about the amount of dues and/or fees the union would charge if elected; to what entities the dues will be paid; and a percentage breakdown of the specific purposes for which the dues will be used (for example, political lobbying, representing graduate students, salary and benefits for union officials).

If graduate students choose not to pay to be a member of the union, but are in the defined bargaining unit, they would not be allowed to vote on ratification of the final collective bargaining agreement or on other union decisions, such as a decision to strike, despite those decisions impacting them directly.

2.13 What input could graduate students have on what is negotiated by the union if one is certified?

If a union is certified, the parties begin the process of collective bargaining. The union selects a bargaining committee to represent it for the negotiations. How that committee is selected is determined by the union. It is up to the union to decide what input to seek from its members.

2.14 What happens if graduate students do not agree with the agreement that is reached?

At the end of the bargaining process, members of the union have the opportunity to vote to ratify the final agreement that is reached between the University and the union. The union may limit voting rights to dues-paying members of the union. Those who can vote have the option to vote to accept the agreement or to reject it as a whole. If the agreement is rejected at the ratification vote, the parties have to continue to negotiate. If the agreement is ratified, all graduate student assistants included in the bargaining unit will be subject to the agreement. No one can opt-out of the agreement.

2.15 Could there be a strike?

Yes, the union has the right to call for a strike. The procedure for doing that is determined by PERA and the union’s own constitution and by-laws.

If graduate students went on strike it could impact their own skill development, and also have a negative impact on the students they teach and the research projects they are working on, both for their own dissertation/thesis research and degree progress, and for other faculty and student projects.

During a strike, the University would have the right to suspend both the tuition waivers and assistantship stipends paid to graduate assistants. Finally, the time lost during a strike could interrupt the completion of degree requirements, thereby delaying graduation and possibly requiring additional tuition payments from students to complete their degrees.

2.16 Besides striking, what can the union do?

We do not know what specific mechanisms a union would attempt to use to address disputes with the University. At other universities, graduate student teaching assistants have withheld grades (which could impact undergraduate students’ degree progress). In other contexts, unions often encourage bargaining unit employees to limit their activities when there is a labor dispute, such as not participating in committees or other voluntary activities, or to engage in activities such as picketing that is designed to disrupt facilities and other people’s access to them.  Of course, all of these tactics disrupt educational activities, including undergraduate education.

2.17 Could a union have a negative impact on the University’s receipt of research funding?

The University cannot predict whether there would be any impact on research funding. If there were disruptions to research activities because of labor disputes, these could negatively impact the ability to fulfill grant and contract terms, including meeting deadlines for research reports and other deliverables, and thereby impact funding renewals and future funding that are sources of graduate student support. In addition, there could be provisions in a collective bargaining agreement that negatively impact the University’s ability to fulfill grant terms.



 3.1 Can graduate students continue to attend governing body meetings and discuss issues with faculty?

Of course. We encourage graduate students to continue to engage with faculty as they have in the past, including through graduate student seats on the Penn State Board of Trustees, Faculty Senate, Counseling and Psychological Services Advisory Board, Graduate Council, Student Health Insurance Advisory groups, and Scholarship and Research Integrity (SARI) Advisory Council. We hope to continue our open dialogue with all graduate students on issues that are important to them.

3.2 How can graduate students make their voices heard?

One of the special attributes of institutions of higher education is the constant sharing of ideas and opinions. Graduate students are free to make their voices heard, regardless of whether or not they are in favor of the unionization effort.

For more ways graduate students can make their voices heard, visit the Resources page on this website.

3.3 Can graduate students expect to be contacted by a union representative?

Yes. Union representatives may call, text, or email graduate students. These representatives may also make visits to students’ homes, both announced and unannounced. How students respond to these visits is up to them, just as they can choose how to respond to any other visitor.



4.1 How is what is happening with the union at Penn State differ from what is happening at other universities?

It is difficult to compare the process of unionization efforts at other universities with efforts at Penn State because unionization differs between private and public universities and unionization efforts are unique to a particular institution. Private universities are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), while public universities, such as Penn State, are governed by state labor relations boards.

However, there are a number of private universities where unionization efforts by graduate students are on-going. The majority of these universities have spoken out against those unionization efforts. These schools, like Penn State, seek to defend the critical academic relationships between graduate students and faculty, and consider graduate students to be students first and foremost, who come to Penn State as an educational institution to seek advanced degrees based upon the quality of Penn State’s graduate programs and its graduate faculty, who are nationally and internationally recognized for their research and scholarship.

Litigation over the graduate student organizing efforts at many of these universities, and may ultimately have to be decided in the federal courts. At Duke University and Washington University, both of which similarly opposed unionization, their unionization effort was voted down by students in a full and fair election.  For more information, see the Resources page.

4.2 Has graduate employee unionization at other universities changed the relationship between students and faculty in comparison to when they were not unionized?

The only private university with a graduate student union contract is New York University, where there have been many disputes between NYU and its graduate union over things like assignment of teaching and other academic issues and activities.

There are a number of state universities which have unions certified under state laws that vary. In many states which permit graduate students to unionize, state law limits the subjects which can be bargained and may also prohibit graduate students from going on strike. There is no objective way to determine the impact that unions have had on faculty-student relationships at the relatively small number of universities where graduate student unions exist, and opinions about the impact are likely to differ. Below are links to several articles addressing this issue:

For more information, visit the Resources page.

4.3 What were the changes that occurred at other universities following unionization of graduate students?

We do not have enough information to compare what changes occurred at the relatively small number of universities with graduate student unions. It is important to remember, however, that no increases are guaranteed. Stipends, health care, and other benefits would be subject to collective bargaining and negotiation, to the extent that they are part of employment terms and conditions (as opposed to academic matters), but there is no way of knowing right now how current stipends, benefits and other aspects of one’s graduate assistantship might change. It is possible that the union would seek to make stipends uniform for both teaching and research assistants. It is also possible that stipends would be equalized across graduate programs, which may result in decreases for certain students. This can only be known for sure after a union has been certified and a collective bargaining agreement has been finalized.

The only public university in Pennsylvania with a graduate assistant union is Temple University. You can find their current union contract on the TUGSA website, and a comparison of elements of that contract with what is afforded currently to graduate assistants at Penn State (which has no graduate assistant union) presented below:


Penn State (No Graduate Assistant Union)  Temple University–TUGSA Contract1
Stipends2 $19,6202 minimum for all disciplines Sciences – $18,6972 Educ., Bus., Soc. Sci., Health – $18,0002 Arts and Humanities – $17,3082
Tuition3 No proration – Full tuition remission for all assistantships. Pro-rated for less than “full-time” appointments.  
Health Insurance Subsidy4 No proration – Same subsidy for all assistantships. Pro-rated for less than “full-time” appointments.  
Health Insurance Carrier5 Graduate students provide input on plan design and selection of carriers through representation on the Student Insurance Advisory Board and the Student Insurance Administrative Council. Temple University retains the right to change the carrier at its sole discretion.
Paid Leave6 See Guidelines for Graduate Assistant Paid Leave. Up to one week for illness of graduate assistant or family member, or bereavement. Extended leave of six weeks for illness or birth/initial adoptive placement of a child or until the end of the appointment. Three sick days/semester. Above three days, $56 deducted per day from pay. With absence of five days, university may terminate appointment. Five days for birth/initial adoptive placement of a child
Academic7Benefit If union is elected, ALL research assistants, teaching assistants, graduate assistants and trainees would be IN the unit. The Penn State unit would INCLUDE those who derive an academic benefit, including research assistants who are using their research for their dissertation or thesis. Research assistants who derive an academic benefit from their assistantship (e.g., a grade, academic credit, part of a course, or towards a thesis or dissertation) are EXCLUDED from the bargaining unit
Union Dues8,9        N/A Upon written authorization from any employee, dues deducted from wages each month at 1.65% of gross salary8,9.
Fair Share Fees8            N/A Collected from all members if 70% of bargaining unit maintained as dues-paying members.

1 Based upon the current contract for the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA), which covers the period from 2014-2018.  See http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf.

2 Stipends listed are for the 2017/18 academic year. See page 31, item F of the Temple University-TUGSA contract at http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf.

A “full-time” appointment at Temple = a “½-time” appointment at Penn State.  See Temple University -TUGSA Contract page 14, item A., and Penn State “Teaching and Research Assistantships” appointment categories.

For Temple, minimum stipends by discipline for the 2017-18 contract year (Temple University -TUGSA Contract page 31).  Rates represent a 2.25% increase over prior year.

For Penn State, reflects the minimum required stipend grade 12 for all disciplines in 2017-18.  Stipend amounts per grade have been increased an average of 3% every year at Penn State, based upon available records for the last six years.

3 Temple University -TUGSA Contract page 32. (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf ).

4 Temple University -TUGSA Contract page 28, item E. (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/1 ). 0/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf ).

5 Temple University-TUGSA Contract page 27, Article 19, item B. (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf) .

6 Temple University – TUGSA Contract page 25-26. (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf ).

7 Temple University – TUGSA Contract pages 39-40 (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf ).

8 Temple University – TUGSA Contract pages 7-9 (see http://tugsa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TUGSA-CONTRACT-2014-2018.pdf ).

9 http://www.tugsa.org/about-tugsa/get-involved/.