Petition to Protect Students and Workers at Penn Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic

Note: Organizers from Penn GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania) will update this document with signatures and endorsements in batches. 

Please click on this link and fill out the Google Form to add your signature to this petition. The form also includes an option to share a testimonial about your experiences or thoughts about the crisis. 

March 19, 2020 

To President Gutmann and the University of Pennsylvania Administration,

We are writing on behalf of university students, faculty, workers, and community members to express our deep concern with recent measures that the University of Pennsylvania has taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We demand the administration to provide a more robust set of protections for ensuring the immediate and long-term economic and psychological safety of the Penn community.

During a moment of global crisis, Penn suddenly forced hundreds of students living in university housing to leave campus on extremely short notice. Many were left with insufficient accommodations and many requests for alternative housing arrangements were flatly denied by the university. Alarmingly, in a March 15th email to undergraduate students’ parents, the university indicated that they contacted landlords to pressure students to vacate those on off-campus housing. This potentially violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects the privacy of student records. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, university-wide policy to “depopulate” the campus takes a serious economic, personal, and psychological toll on many students, their families, workers, staff, and community members of Penn.

These are not reasonable responses to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Indeed, City Councilmember Helen Gym specifically criticized Penn’s decision to immediately remove students from university housing, claiming it contradicts the Philadelphia-wide policy for halting all evictions to stem the outbreak.

The university’s manner of making decisions and communicating them puts us at great unease. We receive intimidating dictates to suddenly evacuate university housing on and off-campus; we see students given no choice but to travel during a pandemic, which, according to the CDC, places them at greater exposure risk to the virus; further, a March 13th email signed by the Provost threatened students on and off-campus with the use of police intervention and academic probation to enforce a social distancing policy, which confusingly contradicted previous messages ensuring that “internal meetings” fewer than 25 people were permissible. 

These are objectionable precedents for handling unprecedented crises. They are premised on an unsettling readiness to punish, intimidate, and displace the university’s own students and workers. We cannot allow knee-jerk responses practiced during a moment of crisis to become naturalized into new, routine and unfair procedures. 

The University of Pennsylvania still has an opportunity to better care for its students and workers. Many of us–tenured and untenured faculty, adjunct instructors, post-doctoral researchers and instructors, service and maintenance workers, international and domestic undergraduate and graduate students, members of the Penn community–still have many unmet needs.

Because the University of Pennsylvania has the resources, and the professional and moral obligation to meet our needs, we make the following immediate demands:

  • Guarantee housing security for all students who require it. The university must approve all on-campus housing requests. Of the hundreds of students who requested housing, a great many of them were denied. They were also informed that they could not appeal the decision. Some of those students remain in Philadelphia in insecure housing situations. The university must guarantee on-campus housing and/or off-campus housing security for all students who need it. 
  • Provide housing for GAs (Graduate Associates). The GA contracts guaranteed secure and safe housing until June 1, 2020; the university must stay true to the contract by providing housing, utilities, including internet paid for by the university, and all other necessary amenities necessary to survive quarantine in the state of a global emergency. GAs must also be offered testing for COVID-19, as they were working during the undergraduate move-out and potentially exposed themselves to contagions from students returning from travel. 
  • Cease pressuring landlords to evict students from off-campus housing. Emails from the Provost have stated that Penn is encouraging off-campus landlords to pressure student tenants to leave their homes and depopulate the area. This practice increases the number of students facing housing insecurity and their risk of transmitting or contracting COVID-19. Penn’s protocol contradicts the Philadelphia municipal courts’ decision to put a moratorium on all evictions, as well as the resolution proposed by City Councilmember Helen Gym.
  • Guarantee that hourly workers will not face loss of pay because of suspension of university operations. This includes undergraduate students who rely on work-study and will lose hours this semester. While Penn has stated that “At this time, no University paid employee will be put in an unpaid status,” this policy does not clearly protect workers from loss of wages nor does it prevent the university from laying off workers at a later date as the crisis continues. All campus workers, regardless of work status and contract status, should continue receiving full payment by the University. In cases where workers are employed through third-party contractors, the University must demand that the contractors also provide the same benefits, and maintain that our continued association with the contracting agency be contingent on this. We support the Student Labor Action Project’s petition to support Penn Dining Workers.
  • Guarantee that salaried and stipended workers, including graduate student workers and post-doctoral researchers, will not lose pay because of extenuating circumstances created by the pandemic. 
  • Guarantee that all workers on campus have unlimited paid sick and personal leave. In accordance with safety policies recommended by the CDC and other organizations, Penn workers need to be free to take all of the personal time they need without consequence. Considering that Philadelphia schools are closed, Penn workers are facing unprecedented care-taking demands. Additionally, the recovery time from COVID-19 infection is still unknown, and Penn workers must be able to take the necessary time to recover completely. 
  • Place an immediate moratorium on rent collection for all Penn-owned properties. This includes both properties that are rented by small businesses, such as People’s Books and Culture, as well as the off-campus apartments owned by Penn through University City Associates.
  • Guarantee that all workers, students, faculty, and staff on campus are provided with the appropriate protective equipment, including but not limited to: gloves, facemasks, and hand sanitizer. 
  • Fully cover the costs of COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination. We understand that Penn has stated that all of their insurance plans will cover testing and waive payment sharing for tests, but the current policy for covering treatment is vague and incomprehensive. All payment and access to care should be 100% covered for all university affiliates, regardless of Aetna’s policies and of whether services are provided by an in- or out-of-network provider. The university must also ensure that university health center employees are fully aware that that care will be fully covered for those with insurance through the university or elsewhere. 
  • Publicly and forcefully denounce opportunistic manipulation of the pandemic to promote racism, especially against Asians and Asian-Americans. 
  • Guarantee that the Penn Police will never be used nor threatened to be used against students, workers, and community members to enforce COVID-19 policies. 
  • Reimburse all costs incurred by all university affiliates who leave campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including but not limited to: transportation costs; storage costs; rent for those displaced from university housing; and food and living expenses for students who lose access to meal plans. 
  • Ensure that any students on F-1 and J-1 visas are able to maintain their visa status as needed to lessen the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. We understand that universities nationwide are still waiting on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidelines. But we demand that Penn negotiate and advocate for universal visa extensions on behalf of its students and workers.
  • Give all students the option to receive a pass/fail grade in any course this semester, and ensure that all grades account for the extreme circumstances that students have faced this semester. In addition, no student’s enrollment status or academic standing should be affected by the events of this semester. 
  • Offer all graduate students at least a one-semester extension on program progress milestones. This includes, but is not limited to, qualifying masters or doctoral exams and dissertation progress checkpoints. 

Because the duration of the pandemic is unknown and its ramifications for the future are indefinite, we believe students and workers will remain compromised on a long-term basis. We thus demand the following longer-term protections from Penn: 

  • Affirm that the sudden transition to remote teaching is a temporary response to an immediate public health crisis. We demand a letter from Provost promising that remote learning platforms will not remain a permanent standard for the higher education curriculum at Penn. We believe that maintaining a residential setting for faculty and students to create knowledge and interact in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, museums, performative spaces and studios, and other university spaces, is crucial to the intellectual integrity of this institution. 
  • Guarantee that all incoming graduate students for the Fall 2020 semester will receive their stipend payments in advance, as well as a guaranteed grant to fund their move and travel to Philadelphia. This should apply to all future incoming students henceforth. See GET-UP’s position on the crisis of delayed stipend payment at Penn here.
  • Provide all current ABD (All But Dissertation) PhD candidates facing immediate structural gaps in their funding packages with summer funding. Transform all current university fellowships on a 9-month or 10-month stipend disbursement plan into a 12-month stipend that guarantees payment over the summer. This includes, but is not limited to, graduate students on the Benjamin Franklin Fellowship.

Please click on this link and fill out the Google Form to add your signature to this petition!

Read and share testimonials from the Penn Community here!

GET-UP Position Statement on Delayed Payments at the University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania expects its graduate student workers to bear unreasonable financial costs that become obstacles to our education. This problem manifests across the graduate schools as delays or gaps in students’ payments. Most pressingly, many who receive a stipend do not receive their first payment until the last day of September—even though the semester begins at the end of August and most graduate students have to sign leases starting as early as August 1st. The problem of delayed payment is only one of the financial burdens graduate students face as members of their department. We frequently front departmental costs like dinners for speakers or research-related travel and wait months before reimbursement. Further, at some point during their time at Penn most graduate students are expected to go entire summers without pay, despite continuing to teach, research, and publish. The unfairness of this system is obvious: it privileges wealthy students and forces those who are not to fall into debt. As graduate workers at UPenn we oppose in the strongest terms all unreasonable gaps in payment. In this petition we call for an immediate end to start-of-semester delayed payment.

Delayed payment presents an unequal obstacle to graduate education for many grad workers. Low-income students may not have the savings to relocate and work for a month without pay; international students have much higher costs associated with moving to the university; and students who are disabled or parenting may face greater expenses than average due to healthcare and childcare. While it is possible to request a stipend advance from the university, this fact is poorly advertised, overly bureaucratic, and treats delayed payment as an individual matter rather than a university-wide issue. We do not believe a student who cannot afford to go over a month without pay after moving to a new city should be treated as an exception. As a first step towards addressing this issue, we demand that all graduate students receive their first payment before their program begins. This demand should be met in Fall of 2020 by moving the first stipend payment of the academic year to the end of August at the latest. We invite the Dean of Graduate Studies to discuss this with us in order to come to a fair solution. Ultimately, however, addressing the problem of payment will require larger changes, such as guaranteed summer funding for all graduate students in a 12-month stipend—as is already the case in the Biomedical Graduate Studies PhD Program.

In GET-UP, we understand delayed payment as representative of the larger culture of a university that assumes wealth and poverty as an unfortunate or temporary anomaly. The expenses involved in starting graduate school—from exorbitant fees for applications and the GRE, to the cost of moving across the country or globe, to having to secure a residence, purchase class materials, and cover one’s cost of living for well over a month—are immense. If the university feels that a majority of its student body is able to front these costs without issue, it is clear who they think that student body is and should be. Many students accumulate years of debt to cover these costs. Many more, whom we will never know, choose not to apply to or attend a university that treats them as exceptions to the rule of wealth. If we wish for Penn to embrace students of different backgrounds and means, delayed payment must end now!

GET-UP Public Statement – Fall 2019

ATTENTION, GET-UP!

We write this letter to announce a new phase of graduate student organizing at the University of Pennsylvania. As we build on a decades-long struggle to unionize graduate student workers at Penn, we encourage you to join our movement at this decisive stage of defining our objectives, forming meaningful solidarities with existing groups on and off campus, and fighting for the kind of University we would like to create. For more information, email us at penngetup@gmail.com. We invite you to join us.

As returning students—and recipients of this message—may be aware, this struggle has a history. In the Fall of 2000, Penn graduate students came together to form a union to better advocate for their interests and to have a role in shaping the future of the University; they called their movement GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania). A second union drive was launched, under the same name, in 2015. Both previous efforts were obstructed by an intransigent University administration as well as two uncooperative cabinets, appointed by Bush and Trump, of the National Labor Relations Boards (NLRB). We do not yet have a union, but we enjoy the benefits of these struggles.As a result of the first drive, graduates won a significant increase in their stipend (up from $12,000 per year to $17,500), more equitable funding within departments, and, for the first time, guaranteed health insurance. Similarly, the 2015 campaign also resulted in a number of key concessions from University management, notably graduate student access to the campus gym facilities, increased funding for dependents, and a 50% subsidy for dental insurance through Penn. Although it is easy to take them for granted, these concessions were hard won through organized pressure against the administration. Further, the way University make these concessions available to graduate students is not without its problems: the gym membership, for example, is sustained by increasing the tuition fees for Masters students. There is still much more that the University can do to support all graduate students.

At present, there is no straightforward path to winning a union formally recognized by the NLRB. What we do have is time, and we intend to use it. The most recent GET-UP campaign shed light on a variety of issues that remain relevant for graduate student workers at Penn today: inadequate access to healthcare and to dental or vision carediscriminatory practices against students of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled studentsfunding and job insecurityopaque grievance procedures at the university, school, and department levels; and several others, such as workers’ compensationsupport for family dependents; and protections for international student workers. We believe that the issues the recent campaign raised, and the solidarities it generated, provide a powerful template for future organizing at Penn. We also believe that in order for GET-UP to win a union in the future, we must continue to maintain and build graduate student power.

As we enter this new phase of organizing, we invite graduate student workers at Penn to join us and shape our movement. A number of initiatives are already underway: an anti-sexual harassment campaign, creating a “disorientation guide” for newly admitted graduate students, and a power mapping project to develop an organizing strategy. For the Fall, we plan to collaborate with local organizations, such as the Student Labor Action Project, connect with labor organizers in Philadelphia and across the U.S., and host teach-ins that focus on the state of graduate student labor at private universities.

In solidarity,
GET-UP

Protecting Grad Organizing and the Future of Our Union

Last May, GET-UP filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. In response, the Penn Board of Trustees hauled graduate students into hearings, argued that grads cannot be both workers and students, and ultimately delayed our election by 203 days. In December, we were excited to finally receive our election order and to continue organizing graduate student workers to have a democratic say in their workplaces.
Unfortunately, Penn’s opposition has continued with arguments along the  same old lines. In the past weeks, we’ve seen numerous anti-union e-mails riddled with falsehoods and scare tactics formulated to intimidate grads. Instead of recognizing the majority of grad student support we demonstrated back in May, Penn chose to invest tuition dollars on frivolous legal hurdles orchestrated by the union-busting law firm Ballard Spahr. Their strategy is to delay, stall and confuse, all at the expense of grads exercising their legal right to organize. And most importantly, in contradiction to labor law, Penn has continued to forcefully assert that graduate students are mentees and future colleagues – but not workers.
Why can Penn take such a hard anti-union line against the rights of its grads? Because Penn is relying on the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board as a backstop. It has only taken the Trump NLRB a few months to overturn numerous protections for workers that were established in the last eight years. We believe that the Trump NLRB, when filled with a majority of union-busting appointees, will also move to overturn the Columbia decision that recognized our right to organize around our wages, working conditions, and benefits.
In response to these challenges, GET-UP took an important and powerful step to withdraw our election petition in order to ensure that Penn and the NLRB cannot use our campaign to overturn the Columbia precedent. We made this decision in a Special General Body Members’ Meeting on Thursday, February 15. Our petition to withdraw was submitted to the NLRB today and we are waiting for an official acceptance notice. While we are disappointed in Penn’s administration and by the appointments of union-busting NLRB members, we know that a union is ultimately much more than an election. Withdrawing our petition helps protect grad workers’ rights across the country and our ability to organize for an election in the future.
To that end, GET-UP, in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers, will continue to organize graduate students, to advocate for graduate worker rights at Penn, and to press for union recognition directly with our administration. Over the coming weeks, GET-UP will be developing a long-term strategy for our campaign, and we encourage all members to be a part of this process in their departments and schools.
Our colleagues in the the Graduate School of Education will be presenting a petition at the University Open Council Forum on February 21 from 4:40pm-6:00pm in Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall. For the past several months, GSE has been organizing to improve the reporting mechanisms for and graduate worker protections against sexual harassment in their school. GET-UP will be a strong presence at this meeting. Please consider joining us (and wear your shirt or pin!).
GET-UP is the union of graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania. Our aim is 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. We remain committed to working together for a better Penn.

Solidarity with IDEAL Council’s Open Letter

GET-UP is proud to sign in solidarity with the powerful statement and list of demands by the IDEAL Council of GAPSA, which represents marginalized groups on campus. GET-UP joins with IDEAL and other groups on campus in continuing to condemn the race science propagated by Penn Law professor Amy Wax in her August 9 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed. In our response on August 11, and in our call to build a stronger community following the white supremacist rally and terrorist attacks in Charlottesville August 14, we affirmed: “GET-UP stands together with many across our campus, joining our voice with theirs to condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and oppression in all its forms. We continue to call on Amy Gutmann to condemn racism on campus, without equivocation.”

GET-UP aims to support and bolster the important work of IDEAL’s members and partner organizations as they call for clear grievance procedures and a centralized Diversity and Inclusion office. In our capacity as a union, we will help put pressure on Penn’s administration through contract negotiations and public presence alike. We will work together to combat the tremendous power imbalances that exist between Wax and the Penn administration on one side, and graduate and undergraduate students on the other. To do so, GET-UP will advocate for a fair, transparent, universal and anonymous grievance procedure in our contract negotiations with the university and for significant changes to Penn’s approach to marginalized communities of students and student workers. GET-UP will continue to stand with marginalized members of our community. We also encourage our members and supporters to sign as individuals in solidarity with the IDEAL Council’s letter here.

Charlottesville

GET-UP has been organizing for over a year to win formal recognition of our union and a contract with the university—and we encourage you to sign our public pledge to vote YES in a union election. An essential part of GET-UP’s mission is about building a community, one that can defend our members when our values are under attack. I want a union because it's necessary for a more democratic campus

Last week, GET-UP published a response to Penn Law Professor Amy Wax’s hateful op-ed about the supremacy of 1950s “bourgeois culture.” Today, we stand together to condemn the white supremacist rally and terrorist attacks in Charlottesville. As far right organizations are targeting university campuses as staging grounds for their racist culture wars, GET-UP is committed to building a university community where people from all nationalities, racial identities, and religions can thrive.

GET-UP stands together with many across our campus, joining our voice with theirs to condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and oppression in all its forms. We continue to call on Amy Gutmann to condemn racism on campus, without equivocation.

GET-UP will always stand with marginalized members of our community. We hope you will too. Sign our public pledge to vote YES here.

NLRB Hearing Update: Finally, the last day!

Hi Fellow Grads!

Today was the 13th and final day of our hearings and I only got to catch the tail end because I was doing fieldwork — I came in right as the lawyers and staff were packing up at 12pm. I ran into Coleman before he headed to work. He had been live tweeting throughout the morning, so I got a good sense of what happened before I arrived. Here’s a sketch of the day:

After 12 grueling days of hearings, the lawyers finally acknowledged that the hearings would come to a close. MHO (Madame Hearing Officer) and the lawyers noted that there wasn’t a large audience today, laughing with what seemed to be relief that the hearings were drawing to a close. Mr. Johns, Penn’s leading lawyer, finally acknowledged that not all of his team was from Ballard Spahr, and one of the men there today was actually part of Penn’s general counsel.

There were no witnesses brought to the stand today, just brief discussions about NRLB policy around summer elections, and of course their continuous and asinine assertion that we are “students” not “employees”. As Mr. Johns stated towards the end, “This is the realm of academics, not employment”. Maybe this split is why graduate students are constantly put in exploitative, vulnerable, and boundaryless positions in relationship to faculty. Maybe it’s why we have some of the worst mental health statistics of workers in our age bracket.

Later, when reading NLRB policy, Penn lawyers argued that we don’t qualify for a mail-in ballot election even if we were to be considered employees because we are not “scattered or diffuse” but rather all centralized on campus and in West Philly — yet then only a few minutes later, the summer election was considered to be anti-democratic because it would disenfranchise those who aren’t on campus! These two things cannot be true at once! But we know that calling our election anti-democratic is just another stall tactic–using the rhetoric of democracy to prevent workplace democracy is really poor form, if you ask me.

Penn’s lawyers then tried to undermine our strategy for determining eligibility. We want as many students within the unit as possible to be eligible to vote; Penn’s administration wants the opposite. Their lawyers tried to argue once people finish teaching/researching, they don’t usually go back to it, which factors into voter eligibility. One of my good friends taught for a semester after she returned from fieldwork, and I’m sure we all know someone in that position–these are the people Penn’s administration is trying to disenfranchise, because they have some fantasy that everyone’s teaching and research schedule looks exactly the same. The administration’s lawyers seem keen to ignore the facts. It is so clear that over the past two and a half weeks this administration has made a mockery of our essential contributions to the university and in doing so has continued to indulge these ridiculous arguments to guarantee that our work and presence stay unrecognized.

Penn admin and our lawyers now have 14 days to prepare their briefings for the NLRB (there was some hinting that admin lawyers would ask for more time because of the July 4th weekend…stall, stall, stall). Congrats to everyone in GET-UP for making it through the hearings!! We now just wait to hear back from the NLRB, and get all hands on deck to respond to their decision about the election. I proudly stand in public solidarity with all of my fellow graduate students to say that our work and contributions matter, as does our health, safety, and legal protection. You, too, can stand with GET-UP by signing the public pledge to vote yes for a union!

In solidarity,

Tali Ziv

 

NLRB Hearing: Day 12 – SEAS stands with GET-UP

Hello Get-Up!

Jennifer and Kenny of SEAS here with your update from DAY TWELVE of the hearings. We’ve been following along virtually for the past few weeks, and today was our first time attending. Since we’ve never been to one of these before, we were interested to see what they were about, and wanted to come support GET-UP grad witnesses.

Three grad student workers testified over the course of the day: Rosie Clark (Annenberg), Allison Russell (Social Policy and Practice), and Ozan Kiratli (SAS/Biology). GET-UP’s lawyers went first, and established Rosie, Allison, and Ozan’s entire work histories. Penn’s lawyers then repeated the same questions — at least twice. They also went over in detail these grads’ teaching, research, and CV’s. (Actually, they declined to question Ozan about his CV, perhaps because all of his teaching is listed as “work experience.”) As always, Penn’s lawyers were trying to prove that our work is not work.

The overall feeling we got from the administration’s lawyers was extreme condescension. We felt like they were devaluing the witnesses, and by extension, all of us, as workers and even as adults. The administration’s lawyers implied over and over again that our work is not real — but everyone’s testimony made clear that when we leave Penn, we leave behind a treasure trove of research and knowledge (or in Ozan’s case, a library of flies) for future researchers. We know that the university doesn’t work without our work, and the witnesses today proved that yet again.

We were also struck today by the disparity in working conditions and compensation levels between programs. We had no idea that grads in SP2 don’t receive summer funding. Learning about other grads’ experiences is one of the most empowering things that has come out of GET-UP. We stand in solidarity with the grad witnesses who testified today from Annenberg, SP2, and Biology, along with all grads at Penn. Because we know that when their conditions improve – when their voices are amplified – we are all stronger and more secure.

We in SEAS stand with GET-UP. And we thank Rosie, Allison, and Ozan for their courage and honesty today. If you haven’t done so yet, show us you stand with GET-UP too by signing the public pledge to vote yes for a union!

In solidarity,

Jennifer and Kenny

P.S. Kenny got on the admin’s lawyers’ nerves with his loud typing whilst live-tweeting. He regrets nothing.

NLRB Hearing Update: Day 11

Dear Members,

Today was the 11th day of our NLRB hearings where Penn is trying everything it can to delay our election long enough to give Donald Trump a chance to take away our right to unionize. However, it was only the second day of testimony from graduate student workers. Up today were grad witnesses Jackie Bannon from Nursing, Kelly Karch from BGS, and Miranda Weinberg from GSE and Anthropology.

There were many highlights from today, including my colleague Kelly’s testimony. She is a fellow Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics (BMB) student. I heard from Kelly about her experience testifying. She described her work as a research assistant and TA, which for her included developing exams, leading recitation sections, and even lecturing on topics where she was more knowledgeable than the professor teaching the class. Not only did Penn’s lawyers claim that none of these roles count as work, they also suggested that Kelly was dishonest about her motivation for TAing on departmental forms she has filled out. They attacked her integrity as she testified under oath. It was very frustrating for me to hear about how Penn lawyers repeatedly asked leading questions to attempt to put words in her mouth rather than accept her honest testimony about her experiences.

Later, Miranda Weinberg testified that she works for 20 hours a week as an RA in GSE, and she was the instructor of record in a GSE class during her 5th year. Penn’s lawyers (seven of them present in the hearing room at one point!) tried to argue that she did this work strictly for the purpose of furthering her own education. This was despite the fact that she repeatedly testified that she needed to do this work to support herself financially. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to say the same thing over and over, and for the lawyers to refuse to hear your answer.

No matter how long Penn tries to stall, we are confident in our ability to win an election because we have a positive vision for Penn. This vision includes making sure that everyone at Penn gets health, dental, and vision care, support for themselves and family members, and a contract laying out the rights and obligations of graduate student workers and the University of Pennsylvania.

If you support the vision of a Penn where grads have a real voice in our work lives, please join us in signing the public pledge to vote YES for GET-UP in the upcoming election. If you are worried about being public in your support, consider that I was one of the 14 original signers of our constitution, have been working on this campaign for more than a year, have expressed my support publicly in the DP, and I have still managed to get permission to write my dissertation and secure a post-doctoral position for after I graduate. I believe in democracy in the workplace, and I think publicly standing up for that belief is an important step towards achieving it.

In solidarity,

Joe Jordan

(Photo above is of GET-UP members at my wedding a few weeks ago.)

NLRB Hearing Update: Day 10 – GET-UP Takes the Stand!

Dear Members,

Today, it was our turn. After two weeks of listening to administrators explain to us that we are not workers, that the work we do is only for our own benefit, and that we do not have the right to unionize, we were able to take the stand to set the record straight.

Ballard Spahr came out swinging. Two partners threw everything they had against us. Before we could even call our witnesses, they vociferously demanded that all graduate students had to waive their FERPA rights in order to testify. In layman’s terms, they wanted us to waive the confidentiality restriction on our academic and financial records, which normally cannot be shared by the University. If we agreed, we’d have to surrender everything from our tax returns to our academic transcripts before we could even take the stand.

But we fought back. Our lawyer argued that just because we are exercising our right to collective bargaining does not mean that we waive our other federally recognized rights. Sitting in the hearing room, listening to this back-and-forth, and struck by the exceedingly disrespectful tone of the Ballard Spahr partner arguing with our lawyer, it was very clear their primary goal in all this was to intimidate us. Trying to force us to relinquish our rights in order to testify is a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate us out of testifying at all.

When that failed, Penn lawyers pushed for compromise, which allowed them to use some of our records. They went through Danielle’s transcript. They somehow dug up Salar’s CV, scrutinizing it line by line, hoping to trip us up. They tried to put words in our mouths, hoping to rework our explanations of teaching as mere “career development” instead of work. But Danielle, who testified first, pushed back. Carefully cataloguing her extensive work experiences at Penn, she once again showed that we are both students and workers.

Stumped, the Ballard Spahr partners turned to obfuscation. When Salar, who testified next, asked for clarification, they responded with condescension: “The great thing about this hearing, Dr. Mohandesi, is that I get to ask the questions, not you.” At that point, the tension in the room, high all afternoon, reached a fever pitch. While revisiting Salar’s teaching record, including multiple award-winning semesters, the admin’s lawyer was visibly frustrated by his inability to make the witness bend to his will. When Salar refused to back down, stating again and again that the teaching requirements in the History department were convoluted, the admin’s lawyer, clearly agitated, shouted at Salar: it seems you have trouble understanding these things. We all stared at the lawyer, wide-eyed, incredulous that he deigned to disrespect a witness in such blatant terms.

When everything had failed, Ballard Spahr returned to their usual tactic: stalling. All told, Danielle spent over two hours behind the witness stand, and Salar endured over three and half hours of questioning. But even amidst all the disrespect, intimidation, and stalling, we didn’t back down. We got to tell our story. We got to talk about what it’s like to work at Penn. We got our chance to have a voice in the future of our university.

If you are frustrated by the stalling and the disrespect, if you are committed to supporting us as we defend ourselves against one of the largest law firms in the United States, if you want us to keep telling our stories, please join us in signing the public pledge to vote YES for GET-UP in the upcoming election. We are fighting to exercise our legal right to a union, but we’re also also fighting for the respect we know we all deserve.

In solidarity,

Salar and Danielle

(a GET-UP member provided this court-room sketch)