Town Hall Questions and Answers

Thank you to everyone who attended the Town Hall in-person, watched online and submitted questions. We received nearly 100 questions, with multiple questions on the same topic. In these cases only one answer is provided below.

If you still have questions after reading through the questions and answers, please email gradinfo@psu.edu.

1. Would unionization require graduate students to “clock in” and “clock out” of the lab?

It is possible that a collective bargaining agreement would require students to keep track of the hours spent in the lab, which may involve some method similar to clocking in and out. Under collective bargaining, a distinction may be made between assistantship activities and dissertation research. For many graduate students, especially those in STEM fields, it is currently difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the research conducted as part of their assistantship from the research conducted either on or in furtherance of their dissertation. A collective bargaining agreement could include limitations on whether research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including dissertations, and could contain restrictions that could limit research opportunities by imposing a limitation on assistantship hours.

 

2. Should the union pass and I am not in the lab for a period of time, whether I am at a conference or given time off to study for candidacy, will we still be paid for the time away?

Currently, graduate students and their professors have the flexibility to adjust student schedules to accommodate travel that provides important professional development opportunities and supports a student’s academic research, without disruption to their stipend. Unionization involves the adoption of more formal and more standardized rules.  It is hard to predict how any future collectively bargained union contract may deal with this issue, but unionization tends to reduce the flexibility that is a hallmark of the current paradigm of graduate education. It is possible that a collective bargaining agreement that would have the effect of providing assistantship pay only for hours spent in the lab on non-academic-related research.

 

3. Is there anything the University can do to address the coercive tactics used by CGE that have targeted international students and new students?

Students have no obligation to talk to a union representative if they do not wish to; union representatives do not have the right to threaten, coerce or intimidate people; students are encouraged to discuss any concerns with their faculty adviser or the Graduate School.

 

4. There was a question about the difference between “appointment time” and I believe it was referred to as “dissertation time”. I was a bit confused by the response that was given. Could you please re-explain for me what the differences are?

For many students, particularly those who have an appointment as a research assistant, the research they conduct as part of their assistantship is the same as, or overlaps with, the research they use for academic purposes, such as for their dissertation. It is therefore difficult to distinguish the research conducted as part of their assistantship from the research conducted on or in furtherance of their dissertation.  If there were a union, this structure likely would change, which could lead to having separate assistantship appointment responsibilities – over which a union could bargain – from academic matters (like dissertation research) which would be outside of collective bargaining. A collective bargaining agreement could bring limitations on whether research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including dissertations, and could contain restrictions that could limit research opportunities.

 

5. Why won’t you allow international graduate assistants to be involved in a union? Thirty schools are unionized.  Do they not have international graduate assistants?

To be clear, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, not the University, decided who would comprise the bargaining unit and be eligible to vote in the unit, if the union wins the election and is certified for union representation.  International students who meet the unit definition set forth by the PLRB are in the bargaining unit. International student status does not affect whether a graduate assistant would be in the bargaining unit. Therefore, international graduate students on assistantships would be members of the bargaining unit, and be subject to the same terms negotiated by the union representatives in their dealings with the Penn State administration, if the union is elected.

 

6. Who are going to consist of the union? Is the salary of engineering graduate student affected if the union is formed? Since some students said the engineering students have a higher salary than them?

The Hearing Examiner decided that all students on assistantships or traineeships WILL be included in the bargaining unit and represented by the union, if a union is elected. Graduate students on a fellowship are not eligible to vote and will not be included in the bargaining unit.

If a union is chosen, stipends would be subject to collective bargaining. There is a common misconception that existing stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits serve as a starting point and can only improve with collective bargaining. Some students’ stipends could go up, some could go down and some could stay the same with collective bargaining.  It’s impossible to predict at this point. There is no guarantee that any union can obtain improvements in any economic area. The law does not require either a union or the University to agree to any contract proposal.

 

7. If I have no intention to use a union’s grievance procedure, how would a union interfere with my relationship with my adviser?

If there is a union, the contract which is negotiated applies to you, even if you do not think that things need to change and even if you do not have a grievance.  Both you and your faculty adviser would be REQUIRED to adhere to whatever is in any collective bargaining agreement and act in accordance with the terms and conditions of the assistantships.  Under a union contract, typically the union or any person represented by a union is able to file a grievance if they believe terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreement are not being met.  That means the union could pursue a grievance, even if you do not want them to.

 

8. How might unionization affect international students on F1 Visa?

As mentioned in the question no. 4 above, international students who meet the unit definition set forth by the PLRB are in the unit. International student status does not affect whether a graduate student assistant would be in the bargaining unit. They would be covered by any collective bargaining agreement regardless of their visa status.

If a union called a strike of graduate student assistants, it is possible that international student visas could be affected.  Sec. 214.2(f)(14) of Federal Immigration regulations states in relevant part that “Any employment authorization, whether or not part of an academic program, is automatically suspended upon certification by the Secretary of Labor… that a strike or other labor dispute involving a work stoppage of workers is in progress in the occupation at the place of employment.”  (emphasis added). For your convenience we have included the following link to the regulation:  https://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/SLB/HTML/SLB/0-0-0-1/0-0-0-11261/0-0-0-17197/0-0-0-17800.html.

In addition, in response to an inquiry from another university on this question, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has stated the following:  “If the student has stopped taking courses or stopped performing research and that is what is required for their program, the student’s record should be terminated immediately and they will have to leave the U.S. as soon as possible.” (https://provost.wustl.edu/resources/unionization/graduate-student-unionization).

Students with questions about this should seek the advice of an immigration attorney.

 

9. If the graduate students unionize, will those graduate students on fellowships from outside the country be dependent on negotiations that they have no say in?

It is the type of appointment (assistantship or traineeship versus fellowship) that indicates whether or not graduate students would be eligible to vote and included in the bargaining unit, not the source of funding. As defined by the PLRB Hearing Examiner, only graduate students appointed to an assistantship or traineeship in a given semester would be included in the bargaining unit and bound by any collective bargaining agreement in that semester, not those on fellowships. However, it is common for graduate students to move between appointment types, often from an assistantship to a fellowship or vice-versa.  For some graduate students, this will create additional uncertainty as they may move in and out of the bargaining unit within the calendar year, meaning their stipends, health insurance benefits, and the rules governing their appointment could change.

 

10. How is eligibility for voting determined?

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) governs unionization proceedings.  The PLRB defines the bargaining unit, which defines who is eligible to vote.

In this case, the decision of the Hearing Examiner from the PLRB defines all graduate assistants and trainees as eligible voters who would be included in the potential bargaining unit.  This means that, if you are on any kind of assistantship or traineeship, you will be included in the bargaining unit.  There are no exceptions.

 

11. What are concrete concerns you have because we have RAs?

For many graduate students, especially those in STEM fields, it is currently difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the research conducted as part of their assistantship from the research conducted on or in furtherance of their dissertation. For that reason, a contract could bring limitations on whether research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including dissertations, and could contain restrictions that could limit research opportunities both on and off campus (for example, restrictions on research hours).

The union could seek to limit opportunities for students who are not in the bargaining unit (i.e., fellows) to teach or even provide guest lectures in classes for educational experience.

A contract could also include rules regarding assistantship hours (e.g., limitations on hours) which could have the practical effect of limiting students from pursuing certain types of research activities, including attending conferences or professional meetings or being involved in some research projects. There is just no way to know what the impacts will be at this point.

 

12. Why would having a large proportion of RAs mean that we can’t be compared to other schools?

At many public universities where graduate students are unionized, like the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of California, research assistants are excluded from the graduate student unions.  That’s not true at Penn State.  The majority of the graduate students in the bargaining unit at Penn State would be research assistants, creating the unique and significant challenge of distinguishing research effort for the assistantship versus research effort for the students’ own graduate education, across the bargaining unit.

 

13. If stipends are raised for graduate students across Penn State, how will that impact the number of students we offer admission to?

If the stipends increase, there is a chance that fewer graduate students would be admitted into programs because there is a limited pool of funding available to graduate programs.

With a union, the University may not be able to make changes in individual stipends and benefits to recruit and retain top students. Changes would have to be negotiated, which can be a lengthy process, and the union may be unwilling to agree, especially if the changes only benefit certain students or programs.

 

14. The university continues to reiterate that the reason they oppose unionization is because of the “individualized educational experience” for each student. Can you describe a scenario in which a student would fare worse due to unionization, compared to the current, non-unionized climate?

Graduate students and faculty could face more stress if they lose the flexibility to work directly regarding areas of disagreement. A union contract sets out a very specific process by which both parties must abide when facing matters covered by that contract.  This process would remove any flexibility that is currently experienced by students and faculty.

Unionization may also impact the individualized educational experience by limiting the flexibility that graduate programs currently have in aligning teaching assistantship responsibilities with graduate students’ educational needs. A union could seek to impose a structure in which teaching assignments are made based upon seniority and not the needs of individual graduate students.

For research assistantships, particularly for programs in the STEM fields, academic research for the dissertation is inextricably linked to research supported by the assistantship. It is not clear how the two can be disentangled as may be required by unionization, where assistantship research would be subject to collective bargaining, but research for a student’s thesis/dissertation would not be.

In other programs, there may be semesters when no assistantship activities are assigned for a graduate student appointed to an assistantship to allow them to focus on writing their dissertation. This practice may not be possible if hours and activities for the assistantship were strictly regulated.

 

15. In a deposition to the PLRB, did any of the panelists or moderators claim graduate students are a burden to the faculty or university?

Transcripts of the hearing before the PLRB are available and posted online so you can review them in context. If you read the transcripts, what you will see is that faculty take pride in mentoring and providing professional development opportunities and feedback to their graduate students to be future scholars, and that the University highly values its graduate students.

 

16. Have there been any surveys to evaluate graduate students’ satisfaction or grievances? And how were they conducted?

Yes, the Graduate School, for well over a decade, has administered a graduate student exit survey to all graduate students who have indicated their intent to graduate.  That survey asks dozens of detailed questions about the graduate student experience at Penn State.  The survey specifically aims to identify problem areas cited by graduate students, both at the program level, as well as with respect to University-wide services and support, with the goal of addressing problems and continuously improving the graduate education experience for all students.

 

17. If your stipend or assistantship is funded by an outside faculty grant (such as those from the National Institute of Health or private organizations) will it be subject to the rules and limits established by the collective bargaining unit? / Will students that receive a stipend under a PI R01 be affected? How does that situation work?

It is the type of appointment (assistantship or traineeship versus fellowship) that indicates whether or not graduate students would be eligible to vote and included in the bargaining unit, not the source of funding.  Faculty who fund students on their grants and contracts, including an RO1, would be required to adhere to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and not have the flexibility to modify those terms for individual students or projects.

 

18. Why did you not invite someone who supports the unionization efforts such as someone from CGE to answer questions?

The goal of the Town Hall was to provide a forum where the Graduate School could directly address questions about unionization from students and explain its viewpoint on the topic. Contemporaneous responses from both CGE and the Graduate School to a set of questions collected from graduate students by the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) about unionization can be found on the GPSA website here:  gpsa.psu.edu/unionization-faq.

 

19. Can a union be dissolved?  Is it permanent?

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.

 

20. Where can we find the outline of the rulings made in the PLRB decision?

The PLRB’s Order Directing Submission of Eligibility List is available to read on the PA Department of Labor and Industry’s website.

 

21. In general, if a graduate student has a legitimate complaint how are the issues addressed?

Graduate students with complaints or issues have recourse well above their own department or college. If a student does not get an acceptable remedy at those levels, the Graduate School’s Associate Dean for Graduate Student Affairs functions as an ombudsman to mediate any problem. The Associate Dean acts independently to resolve matters, without any bias in favor of faculty or administration. Finally, as Provost Nicholas P. Jones stated explicitly at the Town Hall event, as the Chief Academic officer of the University, he has a vested interest in hearing about any grievance that has gone unresolved through normal procedures.

 

22. Would unionization impact the mechanism of including students on the administrative boards you mentioned? If so, would they remain student held, union elected, third-party filled, or something else?

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.

Graduate students currently have the ability to actively participate in University policy and decisions at all levels through Graduate and Professional Student Association representation on: the Faculty Senate, Board of Trustees, University Park Allocation Committee, Student Insurance Advisory Board (SIAB), Student Insurance Administrative Council (SIAC), Student Activity Fee Board, Penn State Alumni Association Alumni Council, and Graduate Council.