What are Penn graduate workers’ thoughts about unionizing?
AL DÍA interviewed some of them after their rally last month.
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GETUP — a group of graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania — reunited over 200 people and rallied on campus on April 26 for safe, fair, and transparent working conditions.
AL DÍA heard from some students about their thoughts on the movement.
For Luella Allen-Walker, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biology department, the rally was to celebrate and mark the new step in becoming a public movement. They were calling on Penn’s administration to agree to a fair and mutual process as they proceed to form a union.
As graduate and undergraduate students who do a lot of the teaching and researching labels at Penn, Allen-Walker believes it is important that they have a say in the work they do here at the university; a union is a most democratic, representative, and powerful way that they can come together and bargain with Penn over better working conditions.
“We need a union because, if not, we are sort of dependent on the goodwill of the university, and it’s not always the case that the university has the best interest of graduate students in mind,” said Natalia Reyes, a rising fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in English from Southern California. “In many cases, the university is more motivated by profit than the perception than they are in doing right by their workers who are the engine of the university.”
Reyes stated that the group requests financial security, protection against harassment and discrimination, and comprehensive and inclusive healthcare benefits. They are fighting for protections for some of the most vulnerable students in the group, which include international student workers and students with families they have to take care of — children, spouses, and dependents.
Sam Schirvar, who is just finishing his fifth year as a College Ph.D. candidate, has been an organizer with GETUP since 2020. He said that the issues the initiative is trying to address are common among many different groups at Penn. The ones that affect him the most include excessive teaching load and excessive working hours during the week and unexpectedly on the weekends. He has also faced unfair payment when teaching big class courses.
Reyes added to that by saying there is a discrepancy between different departments regarding the teaching loads and the amount of pay people get for the same type of job. There aren't clear processes about fair policies around workload and working conditions that could adapt to the diverse work practices that we have among the graduate students, she said.
On top of that, Schirvar believes Penn should go beyond just workplace issues. For him, financial security is a key issue as the cost of living has increased very rapidly in Philadelphia over the past few years, creating difficulties for most graduate and undergraduate students at the institution.
“When I moved here just 5 years ago, unbelievably I was able to rent a room at a house for $275,” he added.
At the beginning of the month, residents and fellows at Penn’s Health System voted to unionize, becoming the first group of training doctors in Pennsylvania to do so, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Of over the 1,000 people who voted, 89% of them approved the unionization.
While Schirvar says it served as an inspiration for GETUP, Allen-Walker believes those were fantastic news as they see a union wave at the institution.
“We are talking about multiple different categories of people who do labor for the university coming together within their sectors and units, and communicating with each other about what their needs are and presenting a united voice to the university,” Allen-Walker added.
GETUP is now at the stage of collecting union authorization cards, after the rally and the launching of their campaign, the university has the right to voluntarily recognize the graduate student workers union or not. If the second happens, the group will have to file a petition with NLRB, and they will have to count the cards to verify their majority. Although there isn’t an exact determined timeline, the group doesn’t expect to be filling for an election over the summer as many scholars are away from campus.
Reyes said that just the prospect of a union has already mobilized the university to make some concessions to graduate students’ support. For instance, this last year Penn guaranteed a minimum stipend of $38,000 to graduate students — with individual departments and schools being able to go above this number.
“If just the mere prospect of a union could win us a major stipend increase, I can only imagine what actually being a union would accomplish,” she added.
Since the beginning of their organization, GETUP has received an overwhelming amount of support from elected leaders, other students, and staff. Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and mayoral candidate Helen Gym were among the prominent names that supported the movement.
For Allen-Walker, having solidarity from people across the city has shown that unions belong at Penn and are a force for good, equity, and representation in the workplace.
“That kind of solidarity across different union groups or different community members is really important because it puts us in the ecosystem of Philadelphia as a union town,” stated Reyes. “This is not just one movement that is happening at Penn, it’s happening across higher education in general.”