State of the Union: Grad-Student Group Still Seeking to Organize

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One year after graduate students voted on whether to unionize, the group seeking to organize them sent this message to the University: “Count the votes.”

Members of Graduate Employees Together—UPenn (GET-UP) led a two-day strike to protest the University’s continued appeal of a National Labor Relations Board ruling that gave about 1,000 graduate students in Penn’s non-professional schools the right to form a union. After the appeal was filed last February, the ballots were removed before they could be tallied. The University maintains that the graduate students are students, and not employees of Penn, and therefore have no right to unionize.

According to GET-UP spokesman Dillon Brown, more than 200 classes or recitations were cancelled on February 26 and February 27 during the strike. “We feel that the strike was successful in a number of ways,” he said. “It communicated to the administration that we are very seriously determined to resolve this disagreement; it raised awareness of our predicament and our concerns to an unprecedented level on campus; it galvanized support both inside our organization and from undergraduates, faculty, University staff, and community organizations.” Brown added, “We are disappointed that the University administration apparently feels that our votes should continue to be uncounted, leaving an unpleasant and increasingly contentious labor dispute in the hands of the incoming president.”

Dr. Peter Conn, deputy provost and the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, gave a different picture of the event. “I’d say the strike ended up being informational only and had no impact on the day-to-day operations of the University. Classes and other campus activities continued as usual.” He added, “The University has no intention of dropping the appeal and will wait for the NLRB to rule.”

Among other things, supporters of unionization seek higher pay for graduate students and more training before they teach classes. Graduate students currently receive free tuition, medical insurance, and a stipend of $15,000 or more per academic year. The University maintains that the students are already well compensated and that teaching and research duties are a critical part of their own education.

Mixed views of the strike filled the news and opinion pages of The Daily Pennsylvanian. In a DP guest column, Dr. Lawrence Sherman, the Greenfield Professor of Human Relations and chair of the criminology department, had little sympathy for graduate students’ claims of inadequate pay, reflecting on how he had to pay his own tuition as a graduate student at Yale and calculating that the typical Penn graduate stipend works out to about $25 an hour over a 600-hour academic year. “They are completely at liberty to work for other income in the summer and winter vacations,” he added.

He also challenged the notion that graduate students were poorly prepared for teaching classes. “Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences spends far more money training standing faculty and other teachers than any other university I know. Yet teaching, like surgery, can only be learned by doing it, not by studying it.”

However, two other faculty members, Dr. David Ludden C’72 Gr’78, professor of history, and Dr. Robert Vitalis, associate professor of political science, backed GET-UP’s efforts in another DP guest column. “Lost in nostalgic accounts of the bootstrap vigor of graduate studies in days gone by is a realistic recognition of the facts of today’s academic labor market,” they wrote. “Tenure-track appointments for Ph.D.s are steadily declining, and the national trend is a rapid increase in the proportion of college teaching done by part-time faculty and graduate instructors.”

About 75 graduate students attended the trustees meeting at which Dr. Amy Gutmann was elected Penn’s next president. Though not included on the agenda, GET-UP chair David Faris interrupted the meeting to address the board. “We are united, determined, and angry. We followed the rules and the law has been used against us. 

“You can end this today,” Faris told the trustees. “You can drop this appeal, you can come to the bargaining table, and you can help us make this university a better place. But if you do not, we will do what we have to do and we will see you in the street.”

After Faris finished speaking, trustees chair James Riepe W’65 WG’67 responded: “We will not have a debate, we will not have this discussed here. But I only want to be quoted that we too are playing by the rules as you are.”


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