Graduate Student FAQs

1. LEGAL PROCESS OF UNIONIZATION

 

1.1 What is a union?

A union is an organization that serves as an 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 What Pennsylvania law governs unionization at Penn State?

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

1.3 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.

For more information about the legal process, see Fact Sheet – Unionization Process Under Pennsylvania Law.

1.4 Can graduate students form a union under PERA?

Employees are eligible to form a union under the Pennsylvania Employe Relations Act (“PERA”), but the law does not specifically include graduate student assistants in the definition of employees. Pennsylvania courts have not yet decided whether graduate students assistants are eligible to form a union. This is an important issue for both Penn State and its students.

 

2. THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF UNIONIZATION ON GRADUATE STUDENTS

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

No. Election results bind every graduate student assistant in the bargaining unit. This includes graduate student assistants 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.

2.2 Would the union represent teaching and research assistants, even if they are funded solely by external funds?

It is possible. The union petitioned to represent all graduate student assistants, including fellows, without regard to whether the students are funded by external sources.

2.3 Would the union represent professional school students as well?

The union petitioned to represent “all full-time and part-time Graduate Workers including Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants as well as all other Graduate Assistants and Fellows.” Penn State believes that, by this definition, professional school students who do not have assistantships or fellowships are not part of the unit sought by the union. The ultimate determination of the bargaining unit, if there is one, is made by the PLRB with a right of appeal to the Pennsylvania courts.

2.4 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.

2.5 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 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, 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 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.

2.6 If graduate students are entitled to unionize and a union is selected, 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 hired or fired (except in certain circumstances for the nonpayment of union dues or fees); (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 other 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.

2.7 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 and fellows 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 you for your future careers in the academy or in industry 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 the mere presence of an external third party (the union) in this relationship may compromise the educational component of the faculty-student relationship. The union may seek to be involved in the feedback 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 our 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 academics and service overlap or intertwine.

2.8 How will a union impact my ability to work directly with my faculty adviser and the Graduate School on tailoring my assistantship?

Unions represent the collective whole of the bargaining unit. They are focused on uniformity and generally adopt a one-size fits all approach. This is one of the main concerns the University has with the potential unionization of its graduate students. The University, including the Graduate School and your faculty adviser, may be limited in dealing with you directly. Unions often seek to use set procedures and seniority in determining certain assignments. These types of rules would supplant the current collaboration with faculty and students in tailoring assignments based on individualized needs. While the University may argue that assignment of assistantships is not something the union can bargain, there might have to be a legal fight to resolve that issue. In addition, if there are disputes over things in a collective bargaining agreement, they may have to be resolved by more formal proceedings with a labor arbitrator as opposed to you working them out with your faculty adviser or the Graduate School.

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

We do not believe so. We believe that unionization could actually increase stress as students and faculty lose the flexibility to work directly regarding areas of tension. By its very nature, a union creates a more adversarial relationship as it could become a faculty v. students dynamic. It could also limit the ability of programs, departments and the Graduate School to intervene on behalf of students and resolve areas of concern, as they do now. Having the involvement of a third party in that relationship could create additional areas of stress and may drive conflicts to more formal processes, such as arbitration, rather than informal resolutions which are in everyone’s best interest.

2.10 Will the union dictate the number of hours graduate students serve as a graduate research assistants in the sciences, even if their dissertation topic is complex such that it requires a greater commitment of time to answer a compelling question and produce a credible scholarly work product?

A union could seek to bargain over the number of hours students in the bargaining unit spend on their research.

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

We don’t know. There is a common misconception that existing stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a floor 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.

2.12 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.

2.13 What are union dues and how are they calculated?

Similar to any business, unions collect fees for services. For unions, this comes in the form of membership dues and initiation fees. Each union establishes its own dues formula. As an example, graduate students at New York University pay 2% of their total compensation each semester in which they hold a union position and the dues are deducted from every paycheck. There can also be an initiation fee when individuals first join the union.

2.14 What input could I 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. The committee decides on the proposals which will be made by the union and which University proposals it will agree to. It is up to the union to decide what input it seeks from members of the bargaining unit.

2.15 What happens if I 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 which 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. You cannot opt-out of the agreement.

2.16 Could there be a strike?

If a union is certified, it would have 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, as well on the research projects they are working on, both for their own dissertation/thesis research and degree progress, and for other faculty projects.

2.17 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 students have withheld grades, which is a “partial strike” when they were in a labor dispute with their universities. 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 engage in activities designed to disrupt the facilities and other people’s access to them like picketing. Of course, all of these tactics disrupt educational activities, including undergraduate education.

2.18 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 deliverables, and thereby impact 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. WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE UNIONIZATION CAMPAIGN?

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

Of course. We encourage you to continue to engage with faculty as you 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 I make my voice heard?

One of the special attributes of institutions of higher education is the constant sharing of ideas and opinions. You are free to make your voice heard, regardless of whether you are in favor or not in favor of the unionization effort.

For more ways to make your voice heard, visit the Resources page on this website.

3.3 Can I expect to be contacted by a union representative?

Yes. Union representatives may call, text, or e-mail you. These representatives also make home visits, both announced and unannounced. How you respond to these visits is up to you, just as you can choose how to respond to any other visitor.

 

4. HOW DOES WHAT IS HAPPENING WITH THE UNION HERE AT PENN STATE COMPARE TO WHAT IS HAPPENING AT OTHER UNIVERSITIES?

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 for many of the same reasons that Penn State is opposing the petition which has been filed with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to unionize Penn State graduate assistants and fellows. These schools, like Penn State, seek to defend the critical academic relationships between students and faculty. These schools, like Penn State, 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, including Columbia, Harvard and Yale, is on-going and may ultimately have to be decided in the federal courts. At Duke University, which similarly opposed unionization, the graduate student unionization effort at Duke was defeated in an election.. For more information, see the Resources page.

4.2 Has graduate employee unionization in 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 is New York University. You can read more about the history of the many disputes that NYU and its graduate union have had over things like assignment of teaching and other academic programs 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 which occurred at other universities following unionization of graduate students?

NYU is the only graduate student union among private universities. The only public university in Pennsylvania with a graduate assistant union is Temple University. You can find their current union contract on TUGSA website.

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 might become the subject of 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 determined after a union has been certified and a collective bargaining agreement has been finalized.

4.4 Have the students of Penn State attempted unionization before?

There was an effort to unionize graduate assistants during the period from approximately 2001-2004, which did not result in sufficient support for even a petition for representation being filed with the PLRB.