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Penn State University Wages Union-Busting Campaign Against Its Own Graduate Students

Penn State graduate assistants may be “students first” but they work 40 to 60 hours a week and have a right to unionize.

The Penn State Harrisburg Campus. (Photo: Penn State; Edited: LW / TO)

Penn State University is no stranger to controversy. In the past decade, its ethical crimes and cover-ups include the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, administration-approved student cheating, the harassment of faculty and journalists by Paterno Truthers and its president’s hypocritical refusal to give sanctuary to undocumented students.

In the newest chapter of Penn State’s fall from grace, [President Eric] Barron rejected a request by the university’s graduate students for union recognition, claiming that they are students first, not employees. He then initiated a university-wide misinformation campaign about the negative impact of student unions on academic freedom. Barron and the university administration have deployed a host of vicious anti-union scare tactics to undermine and delay the unionization process.

As a tenured faculty member at the Hazleton campus of Penn State, I stand in solidarity with the graduate student-workers in their struggle to form a union. I reached out to Penn State’s grad student union organizers in order to help them document the increasingly hostile actions of the university administration and its executive leadership team, led by Barron, to bust the union.

A Half-Century Struggle by Grad Student Labor

The graduate student union movement has been a long and hard-fought struggle spanning at least 50 years. The demands of grad students are typically for better pay, reasonable hours and humane working conditions. However, their efforts to form unions and gain employer recognition have been met with growing resistance by university administrators and executive leaders.

According to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU), a total of 32 graduate employee unions currently exist in the US. Most of these unions were formed at large public universities. Among the 14 universities composing the Big Ten Conference, six have graduate student unions: Michigan State, Rutgers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Michigan. More recently, graduate students at private higher education institutions, such as New York University, Columbia and Harvard, have made significant progress toward gaining union recognition as well.

For graduate students at public and private universities, the path toward unionization is different because distinct bodies and laws regulate labor relations at public versus private institutions. For public universities, state labor laws stipulate how public employee unions are formed. Collective bargaining at private institutions, on the other hand, is governed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), under the authorization of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Penn State is a hybrid public/private or state-related institution in Pennsylvania (as is Temple University, Lincoln University and the University of Pittsburgh), but for collective bargaining purposes is treated as a public university. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), under the mandate of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act (PLRA), has authority over the matter.

Penn State Administration Rejects Grad Student Request for Union Vote

The unionization campaign at Penn State began three years ago with a core group of 20 to 30 activists seeking to organize 3,000-plus graduate assistants at the University. Their demands include increased job security, better pay and benefits, more humane working conditions and the right to be “at the table” in university deliberations affecting their interests. The organizers formed their own group affiliated with CGEU: Coalition of Graduate Employees-Penn State University (CGE-PSU).

The process of gaining recognition for a graduate student union and the right to collectively bargain with the university under the PLRA occurs in four steps:

1. Graduate student organizers (CGE-PSU) distribute and collect signed cards from graduate workers interested in voting for a union,

2. CGE-PSU submits the cards to the PLRB,

3. A conference call between the PLRB, union organizers and university representatives occurs in order to determine the union membership, and

4. Upon agreement between the parties, an election is held; otherwise, in the case of a dispute, the PLRB holds a hearing to settle the matter.

CGE-PSU completed the first and second steps in February 2017. On April 6, the conference call occurred. In the words of the union organizers, “During this call, the university challenged the fact that we are employees, thus challenging our right to form a union.” Without agreement, the matter proceeds to a PLRB hearing. In the lead-up to this hearing, Penn State has already assembled an army of lawyers, ignored legal precedent, delayed the unionizing process, initiated a disinformation campaign and employed a bevy of anti-union scare tactics.

There is a legal precedent for graduate students at a Pennsylvania State-related higher education institution gaining union recognition. In 2001, Temple University’s grad students collected cards and petitioned the PLRB, were rebuffed by administration and, in the hearing, the PLRB ruled in favor of the graduate students’ right to vote. Temple University’s graduate students chose to unionize and they now have a contract with the university. In its hearing before the PLRB (see here and here), Temple University’s argument against grad student unionization was identical to Penn State’s: Graduate students are simply not employees. However, the PLRB decided that Temple’s “graduate assistants are ’employees’ … and may properly exercise collective bargaining rights in relation to wages, hours and working conditions.”

Penn State’s Misinformation Campaign and Anti-Union Scare Tactics

Penn State chose to ignore the Temple precedent, claiming that graduate workers are students, not employees. In a letter to the Penn State community, President Barron writes:

As a public research university, Penn State is committed to the successful intellectual and professional development of its graduate students. We view our graduate students as students first and foremost. They are our mentees, future scholars and, potentially, our future colleagues…. The University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. For this reason, Penn State opposes this petition for representation with the PLRB.

Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas Jones clarifies the university’s position in a letter to Penn State’s faculty:

Penn State views its graduate students as students first and foremost, not employees. When our graduate students apply for admission to Penn State, they apply to one of our graduate programs to study and pursue an advanced degree at a premier research institution. They come to Penn State, not for a job, but for a degree and for disciplinary training, professional development and meaningful experience that will help them succeed in their future careers. We believe the focus must remain on the advanced degree and our faculty’s role in mentoring and optimizing our graduate students’ individualized experiences. Therefore, Penn State is opposing the petition for representation before the PLRB.

Responding to Barron and Jones, CGE-PSU’s representative expressed concern: “We are disappointed that administration continues to refuse to recognize our labor by acknowledging our status as employees.” Penn State’s position is also in conflict with the NLRB’s Columbia decision, holding that graduate teaching and research assistants are to be treated as employees for the purposes of union organizing and collective bargaining.

According to Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School Regina Vasilatos-Younken, recognizing grad students as employees degrades the quality of student-faculty interactions and stymies academic freedom. However, Vasilatos-Younken’s claim is disproven by two notable peer-reviewed studies, one conducted in 2000 and the other in 2013. The authors of both found that grad student unionization does not negatively impact student-faculty mentoring and, in some cases, it actually improves these relationships. In the 2013 study, Sean Rogers, Adrienne Eaton and Paula Voos conclude that “[unionized graduate students report equal or better levels of academic freedom as do those who are not [unionized].”

Still, Penn State administrators disseminate misinformation about the negative impact of grad student unionization on the university website under the Orwellian URL “gradfacts.” As a former climate scientist, President Barron should be familiar with deniers, those who reject the validity of peer-reviewed scientific research on global climate change. Barron has become a denier himself, rejecting the validity of peer-reviewed research on the effects of grad student unionization. To counter the misinformation campaign, CGE-PSU offers resources on its blog “to better understand the slanted information that the university has provided on these sites.”

In a letter from the Graduate Assistants United (GAU), the unionized graduate students at Florida State University (where Barron was president from 2010 to 2014) declare that “[Eric Barron] treated his community [Penn State] to an eloquent and articulate rehashing of the Union Buster’s greatest hits.” Anti-union scare tactics employed by Barron and his administration include:

1.) Portraying union organizers as radical activists and declining to talk. President Barron has refused on multiple occasions to meet and talk with grad student union organizers, while at the same time, calling for “open dialogue about graduate student unionization at Penn State.” CGE-PSU has only organized two nonviolent “work-ins” on February 7 and April 6. These direct actions involved sitting outside President Barron’s office, grading, writing and conducting research. They are hardly the kinds of protests undertaken by radical activists. Despite being continually rebuffed, grad student union organizers are still open to talking with Barron: “As always, in keeping with our value of open dialogue, CGE remains willing to meet with President Barron to discuss how we can proceed in an amicable and mutually respectful manner.”

2.) Claiming that once a union is voted in, collective negotiations for pay, benefits and other terms of employment will start from a clean slate. In order to scare graduate students who are content with the status quo, the administration has claimed in its “unionization FAQ” that “First negotiations with the union would begin at ground zero with a blank slate.” If this were true, then Penn State would not have to honor its prior terms of employment, including baselines wages and benefits. However, it is false. Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Relations Act No.195 forbids employers from dictating terms of employment during the unionization process.

3.) Ignoring evidence-based pay grievances. Penn State’s Graduate School claims that graduate assistants earn on average $28 per hour. CGE-PSU’s Survey on Employee Compensation reveals that most graduate assistants work 40-60 hours per week, but are only paid for 20 hours. One graduate employee laments that “Penn State bureaucrats are using this completely inaccurate number [$28/hour] to make policies about us and paint us as lazy, part-time workers.”

4.) Mischaracterizing the process of voting for a union as undemocratic. Penn State’s “unionization FAQ” states that “The outcome of the election would be determined by the majority of those voting, not the majority of those in the proposed bargaining unit.” The implication is that the process is somehow undemocratic, since only those who actually vote determine whether a union is formed. But majority-rule voting is a commonly accepted decision rule for democratic elections. Failure of some bargaining unit members to vote does not invalidate the election or make the process undemocratic.

CGE-PSU responded to Penn State’s misinformation campaign and anti-union scare tactics with a simple plea that the administration remains neutral in the unionization process: “Misinformation and scare tactic have no place at Penn State.”

Solidarity in the Face of “Anti-Union U”

One criticism commonly leveled at Penn State’s grad student unionization campaign is that the grad students should be careful what they wish for. Penn State employees are not treated well. Indeed, allegations of widespread employee mistreatment are corroborated in the results of Penn State’s 2013 Values and Culture survey.

Penn State’s sordid history of mistreating its employees is well documented. A short list of cases includes those of graduate student Kristin Rawls, coach and Sandusky whistleblower Mike McQueary, staff member and alleged sexual harassment victim Deborah Rearick and faculty member Joan Summy-Long, who claimed pay discrimination based on her sex. However, none of these employees had the protection of a union. Indeed, the only unionized employees at Penn State are with maintenance and food services (organized by the Teamsters).

By supporting the grad students, non-unionized staff and faculty (especially contingent faculty or adjuncts) also stand to make gains in the struggle towards securing greater job security, better pay and benefits, and more humane working conditions. In other words, solidarity in the fight against “Anti-Union U” could reap dividends across Penn State, leading to successful unionization campaigns by a number of employee groups.

I conducted a brief interview with one of the grad student union’s key organizers and spokespeople, Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Demography and Chief Media Officer for CGE-PSU:

Shane Ralston: Does CGE-PSU have plans to form coalitions with other Penn State employee groups?

Kyler Sherman-Wilkins: We are forming a broad coalition with other groups who are supportive of graduate employees’ right to unionize. We are also focusing on building bridges with community advocacy and social justice groups. We want to frame our right to unionize within a social justice framework. Of course, we will also be open to working with other groups in supporting their right to unionize.

Does CGE-PSU believe that a change in leadership at Penn State (e.g. the replacement of Barron as president) would be helpful? (Note: Former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director and lead Sandusky investigator Louis Freeh recently called on Barron to resign for not admitting sooner that the Sandusky scandal cover-up indicated a failure of leadership and never making apologies to Sandusky’s victims.)

Though we are disappointed in the way that the university administration has treated us, we are optimistic that once the PLRB upholds our status as employees, the administration will no longer impede our right to a fair and free election. Indeed, given that President Barron was president of FSU during the unionization process, we are confident that he understands the positive impacts of graduate employee unions and will work with us to better the Penn State community for all.

Would CGE-PSU strike if Penn State refuses to acknowledge the union? (Note: Although most states prohibit public employees from striking, Pennsylvania is an exception.)

We consider a strike as an action of last resort and will only consider it as an option if the majority of our members decide that they want to take said action. At this point in time, we are considering all of our options, but have no reason to believe that a strike is in the foreseeable future.

* * *

We should all stand in solidarity with the grad students at Penn State, offering them encouragement in their fight to gain recognition and bargaining rights despite Penn State’s misinformation campaign and vicious union-busting tactics. Hopefully, success in their campaign will bring about a future for all workers that is much “brighter than the present.”

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