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April 16, 2024

Graduate student workers hold rally, accuse Penn of union-busting tactics

Labor group says the university tried to delay an election for researchers and teacher assistants to unionize.

Education Unions
041724_University_of_Pennsylvania_union election.max-800x600.jpg Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

Labor group rallied with University of Pennsylvania grad students on Wednesday to show support for the students' unionization effort. A unionization vote had been for earlier this week and students accused the university of intentionally delaying the vote.

Penn graduate students who work as researchers and teaching assistants said the university intentionally delayed an election as they attempt to unionize. 

Labor organizations across campus rallied Wednesday — when the union was scheduled to hold its two-day election. Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Penn Museum Workers United and United RAs at Penn hosted the event in an effort to build solidarity after students claimed the university used union-busting tactics. 

"Graduate unionization will be good for graduate workers (and) faculty ... because the improved conditions that unionization can bring will make Penn a better place to research, teach and learn," said Amy Offner, an associate professor of history and president of Penn's AAUP chapter. 

In October, GET-UP submitted 3,000 union authorization cards to the regional National Labor Relations Board. Fourth-year Ph.D. student and GET-UP organizer Clancy Murray called it a supermajority and said Penn could have voluntarily recognize the union. 

Instead, Murray said Penn issued a statement that sought to exclude about half the workers that GET-UP was attempting to organize. Eventually, the university conceded on every job category except first- and second-year biomedical students on lab rotations, which make up a few hundred of the 3,000, and a union election was scheduled for April 16-17. 

Six days before the election, Murray said GET-UP won an appeal to include this group in the election. However, the regional NLRB ruled the election had to be postponed until either April 29-30 or May 1-2 while Penn came up with a list of students eligible to vote.  

But according to Murray, Penn asked to push the election back to the fall semester, claiming there were no spaces on campus to hold the election, which needed to be held during the school year. Murray said this wasn't true, and they went to the Office for Student Life and was able to book a room for May 1 and 2. 

"It was clear at this point that Penn was trying to use our winning this appeal as an opportunity to still delay our election to the fall, even though we got it in this semester by the skin of our teeth in the first place," Murray said. 

In an email, Penn said the delays were due to requirements with the NLRB and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 

"Penn encourages all students who are eligible to vote to learn as much as possible about this significant issue and to vote," a Penn spokesperson said. 

For graduate students, unionization is about having a say in working conditions like pay, benefits, protections for international students and those who are parents, and job security. Full-time faculty has also expressed their support with 246 faculty members signing a public statement backing the students' unionization effort. 

Murray thinks the lack of support from the institution has brought students together in the fight for better worker rights. 

"The exercise of having to communicate these changes to our co-workers, and do so on such a quick turnaround, I think has actually made us stronger," Murray said. "I think it has motivated people to go to the polls in a way that maybe they weren't before they realized that Penn was really trying to mess with us and delayed this election."

The unionization efforts at Penn are part of a larger trend of worker organizations on college campuses. Temple University's faculty collective bargaining union, TAUP, has been in negotiations for a new contract since August. The school's graduate student union approved a contract in March 2023 after a 42-day strike.