In the fall of 2000, graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania came together to form a union. Hoping to have a real voice at the university, they were encouraged by the NLRB decision to recognize graduate employees’ right to unionize at NYU, and by the wave of graduate organizing unfolding across the country. After establishing an open coordinating committee, the founding members named themselves GET-UP (short for Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania) and voted to affiliate with the leading national union in higher education, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Over the next few months, members of GET-UP continued to organize and expand their membership. They learned that grads throughout the university shared similar concerns about their inability to shape their own working conditions. They hoped that the university would remain neutral about their decision to organize, and let grad employees decide for themselves whether to unionize. However, the administration rebuffed requests for neutrality. When Penn refused to recognize grads’ right to vote on unionization, GET-UP followed the example of graduate workers at NYU: they distributed authorization cards to members of their unit, and by December of 2001, roughly two-thirds of graduate employees had signed to petition the NLRB for a representation election.

Despite this overwhelming support to hold an election on union representation, the Penn administration continued to obstruct the process. With the help of their hired anti-union law firm, the Penn trustees petitioned the NLRB, and delayed the election for over a year (the NLRB regulations have since changed in order to prevent this kind of abuse). Meanwhile, the administration conceded to improving graduate students’ work conditions in hopes of discouraging unionization. During this campaign, Penn grads received a significant raise – up from $12,000 per year to $17,500 – and for the first time, secured access to health insurance for all PhD students. Additionally, students who were previously offered unequal funding packages received the guaranteed five-year funding packages that many at Penn have come to recognize as the norm. However, without a union, they still lacked a voice in the administration’s decision-making process.

Therefore, despite the trustees’ anti-union campaign, GET-UP maintained strong support among graduate students. After protesting the administration’s delay tactics, GET-UP was finally able to hold an election in February of 2003. According to an exit poll conducted by the Daily Pennsylvanian, nearly two-thirds of voters voted in favor of unionization. However, Penn refused to recognize the election, and worked instead to overturn the legal precedent that protected graduate students’ right to organize at private universities. In 2004, after President George W. Bush appointed new members to the NLRB, the Penn trustees got their wish: the NLRB overruled its own precedent, and the Philadelphia regional director ruled that GET-UP’s election was void, ordering the votes to be impounded. GET-UP continued to pressure the administration to voluntarily recognize their union, but despite support from students, faculty, the Philadelphia city council, and other community members, Penn refused. While GET-UP 1.0 did not win their union, they nevertheless won significant improvements for Penn’s graduate students. As we continue to reap the benefits of their work, GET-UP 2.0 is named to recognize and continue their efforts to win collective power.

GET-UP, carved into concrete, circa 2000-2009, east side of 44th, between Locust and Spruce

GET-UP Today

Graduate students at Penn decided to revive the campaign for unionization in the fall of 2015. Conditions had changed since the 2004 NLRB decision: in 2014, NYU graduate employees successfully secured voluntary recognition of their union, becoming the first recognized graduate union at a private university. Meanwhile, grads at Columbia University were working to petition the NLRB for a representation election, correctly predicting that President Obama’s NLRB appointments would restore their right to bargain collectively.

Encouraged by these new developments, grads at Penn began to organize themselves. They talked to one another about shared experiences and concerns, and they discussed visions of what a union would mean — both for graduate employees’ lives and, more broadly, for democratic governance at Penn. In the spring of 2016, they formalized their structure; they voted to ratify a constitution and named themselves GET-UP, paying tribute to the work of GET-UP 1.0. They also empowered a committee to explore options for affiliating with a national union. After a summer spent researching and meeting with different unions, the affiliation committee presented their findings to the general body. In the fall of 2016, members of GET-UP voted with an overwhelming majority to affiliate with the AFT, the same union that worked on the first GET-UP campaign. Since then, GET-UP has continued to grow and remains committed to building a democratic workplace.