This article was contributed by the PA AFL-CIO’s Summer Intern and Penn State Senior Lindsey Hogge.
Graduate workers are finding themselves overworked and underpaid as universities demand heavier teaching workloads from them. Huge victories at major universities are inspiring many more graduate worker groups to demand recognition. Today, there are over 30 recognized graduate employee unions and the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) at Penn State University hopes to be next.
CGE began in response to changes made to the graduate employees’ health care plan. Prior to the coalition’s establishment, graduate workers joined together in a group called Healthcare United Graduate Students (HUGS). After a number of failed attempts to work through the university system, HUGS members started to talk seriously about unionization. In 2015 at a Labor Day picnic, CGE announced its formal start. “We’ve been really fortunate,” said one CGE leader. “We’ve found broad support from almost every college in the university and we have support from almost every program.”
The group consists of graduate workers from an array of departments and programs on campus. Some members have previous experience with unions while others simply believe unionizing is the right thing to do. “I came from a union family, so there was never a question about how I would vote,” said Co-President Doug Kulchar, “but it was seeing so many engaged and hard-working activists doing great work that got me to volunteer.”
Health care remains the central issue for most graduate workers. The university has changed their health insurance on an almost yearly basis, and the system remains unreliable. Because of this, many graduate employees have to rely on informal networks if they fall ill. “In every department that we visit, we hear absolute horror stories from graduate workers,” said Kulchar. Although some graduate workers have understanding departments and get the resources they need, just as often “advisors are asking them to put their health at risk and not giving them time to recover.” Besides explicit policies on medical leave, CGE also wants a voice in issues related to transportation, childcare, and maternity and paternity leave.
Currently, Temple University is the only university in Pennsylvania that recognizes a graduate employee union. In 2001, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) ruled that Temple graduate student workers are in fact employees and therefore, have the right to unionize. Despite the precedent set by Temple, the Penn State administration is challenging CGE’s case. Immediately after CGE filed for union representation with the PLRB, Penn State President Eric Barron released a letter stating the administration’s opposition to unionization efforts:
“We view our graduate students as students first and foremost,” wrote President Barron. “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.”
According to CGE, the group has made every attempt to work with the administration in order to make sure this process goes as smoothly as possible. CGE leaders tried to set up times to talk with the administration and dropped off a letter asking for non-interference with the unionization process. This letter was signed by faculty, local government leaders, and labor leaders including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, one of Penn State’s most notable alumni.
Instead of working cooperatively, the administration chose to take CGE to court. In September, a 7-day hearing will decide if Penn State graduate students are employees under Pennsylvania law. “Penn State is an expensive school. One would hope that money would be put in education to make the university better,” said Kulchar. “It’s a real disappointment to see that the university has decided to spend students’ tuition money fighting the people that make that education possible.
Until then, CGE will continue to be a strong presence on campus: “We are still graduate students standing in solidarity and advocating for each other. So while we wait for lawyers to sort it out, we’re still doing some positive work to build a community and solidarity.”
CGE has already proven to be a valuable advocacy and resource group in the Penn State community. Many graduate workers were significantly affected when President Trump issued the travel ban. In response, CGE worked with PSEA to bring in an immigration attorney to inform graduate students about their rights and what the new political climate might bring to them. Last year, CGE worked with the Centre County Women’s Resource Center to co-sponsor a panel on Title 9 rights in order to inform people about their rights and what resources are available to them. In addition, the group participated in the Pride Parade on campus.
“While we wait for the hearing, we’ve made as many attempts as possible to demonstrate that there is explicit support for equality in the workplace and to make it a better place for all students,” said Kulchar. “More than anything, we’re optimistic that this will be straightened out very quickly but it’s really disappointing to see the administration foster a really divisive climate.”