GET-UP is not just a group of graduate students, a campaign to be recognized as employees, and a venue for grievances: we are a union. A union is both a community of interest that unites for the purposes of collectively bargaining a contract and a collective of people who have each other’s backs. We believe that a contract produced by collective bargaining could address general and specific issues facing graduate students, as well as guarantee more democratic avenues for grads to participate in the institution. We see ourselves as a community of interest because, despite differences across disciplines, programs, and departments, graduate workers ultimately labor under common conditions, face similar challenges, and share related grievances. Our aim is to develop our collective power to improve our working conditions, enrich our academic experience, and transform the university into a more democratic workplace for the benefit of the wider community, including undergraduates, standing and non-standing faculty, and the City of Philadelphia.
Our community of interest and the issues that face its members are not given in advance, and we have engaged in a concerted effort to talk with as many graduate employees as possible and listen to their concerns. As we make and remake our organization in the image of our members and their struggles, patterns emerge across the university, between schools and departments, and between groups of students that cut across these administrative divides. Across the university, graduate student workers are underprotected by existing grievance procedures against dismissal, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Graduate employees notice when they perform disproportionate amounts of work for the same benefits, and are surprised that they do not have access to workers comp when something goes wrong. Others explained their struggle to cover their costs of living, health care for themselves and dependents, dental work, rising rents, child care, and emergencies, all while being forbidden from seeking outside employment. Graduate students face uncertain futures where funding packages fall short of realistic completion times — a concern that is amplified for international studies whose visas are tied to their funding. On top of this, international students face a battery of challenges that includes opaque tax advice, expensive housing, and the cost of moving. Graduate students with disabilities express frustration that resources cater almost exclusively to undergraduates. Some students of color struggle to find appropriate mentorship at the same time as the call for a more diverse faculty goes largely unheeded. There are many issues not named here, and many are yet to emerge. It is not an isolated issue that drives our call for unionization; rather, it is the need for political representation to address them collectively.
We are not the first to want to shape our own working conditions. In the early 2000s, graduate students at Penn used the same name for their union campaign. Penn responded by improving graduate students’ work conditions to discourage unionization. In response to grads’ organizing, many received a significant raise – up from $12,000 per year to $17,500 – and for the first time, secured guaranteed health insurance. Additionally, programs that previously offered unequal funding to their students started to provide the guaranteed and equitable funding that many at Penn recognize as the norm. Penn’s fight against grads’ right to unionize was ultimately successful: although exit polls conducted by the Daily Pennsylvanian reported that nearly two-thirds of voters endorsed GET-UP, the Bush-appointed NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) impounded and destroyed the ballots. While we still benefit from the organizing of yesteryear, more than a decade after the stolen vote, we still lack the means to participate in the institution’s decision-making processes.
Our affiliates in this effort are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In addition to representing upwards of 20,000 standing and non-standing faculty and graduate students at Rutgers, Montgomery County College, Camden County College, the Community College of Philadelphia, and Temple, AFT organizes 11,500 teachers, nurses, counselors, and support staff in the City of Philadelphia. They are also supporting efforts to unionize graduate workers at Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Chicago. Staffing models of universities are normalizing precarity, often along race and gender lines, as they rely on adjunct professors, postdocs, and other forms of contingent academic labor more than ever before. By forming a union, we are working towards a more equitable and sustainable future for everyone working in academia. With AFT, GET-UP is on the front lines in the fight for labor and racial justice even as the current federal government targets vulnerable populations.
The NLRB affirmed what we have known for decades: that just like our colleagues at public universities, we are both students and workers. Historically, the University has argued that we do not have a right to unionize because the labor we do is part and parcel of our educational development, and thus not really ‘work’ at all. But this one-sided argument is fundamentally self-serving. While we benefit from our experiences and cultivate ourselves as scholars, scientists, engineers, and teachers through our work, the fact is that without our labor, the university simply could not teach all of its undergraduates or run its laboratories. Fellow graduate students at more than 60 public universities and three private universities have the right to organize and collectively bargain with their employers; we demand the same right to negotiate our working conditions.
There are still many conversations to be had, and in the coming weeks, we will ask fellow grads to sign cards that ask the NLRB to conduct a vote on whether GET-UP should be their collective bargaining representative. More details are available in our FAQs.
Who are we? We are you: Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania.