The Right to Seek Union Representation
The Mechanics of a Unionization Campaign
The Effects of Unionization

Why are graduate students important to Penn?

Graduate students instruct undergraduates and assist faculty in their research, in addition to pursuing their own research. The delegation of tasks involving instruction and research, which generate a large portion of Penn’s revenue, indicates that graduate students have an economic relationship with the university and are important to economic success and sustainability of the institution.

How do graduate students contribute to Penn beyond teaching and research?

Graduate students build community at Penn, and represent the Penn brand beyond the campus. Graduate students contribute to the reputation of Penn and the conviviality of the campus throughout their time at the university, often regardless of whether they are considered to be on ‘fellowship’ or ‘service’ years.

How does the financial support that Penn currently provides to its graduate students compare to other levels of compensation at the university?

Compensation levels vary by discipline ranging from $24,250 to $36,990 in 2016-17. Although almost all PhD students are fully funded for a period of three to five years, it is not typical for students to finish their degrees within the period of their funding.

According to the most recently available tax data, reported in the Daily Pennsylvanian, President Amy Gutmann is Penn’s highest paid employee, and the second-highest paid President in the Ivy League. In 2014-15, her compensation was $3,333,878. While her salary decreased 2.7% on the previous year, she received an increase of 21% in 2014, and her salary doubled between 2010 and 2014. President Gutmann signed a new contract with the Board of Trustees in December 2016; her compensation has not been disclosed. In 2016, President Gutmann earned ninety times more than the most highly compensated graduate students; her salary increase alone between 2014 and 2015 would have paid the stipends of sixteen of the most highly compensated graduate students.

The salaries of top administrators are determined by the University’s Board of Trustees, chaired by David L. Cohen, the Senior Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation. Penn’s second highest compensated administrator in FY2014-15 was Executive Vice President and Dean of Penn Medicine J. Larry Jameson ($2,665,721, an increase of 12.9% on previous FY), followed by University of Pennsylvania Health Systems CEO Ralph Muller ($2,537,658, an increase of 2.9% on previous FY).

Who decides how much a graduate student earns?

Penn’s FAQs on unionization has provided a range of graduate student compensation levels but it has not provided a transparent explanation of how compensation is calculated or who makes that calculation.

How does the compensation that Penn provides to its graduate students compare to those received by graduate students at peer institutions?

From our research, Penn rewards graduate students with stipends that are comparable to those offered by other Ivy League universities, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University — the universities that, along with Penn, filed an Amicus brief against unionization in the Columbia NLRB case. However, other aspects of graduate students’ compensation at Penn is not comparable. For instance, graduate students at Yale, Princeton and Harvard have been awarded forms of sixth-year funding since their union campaigns went public.

It is also worth looking at the gains won by GSOC-UAW, the union of graduate student workers at NYU. Under their first contract in 2002, they won a 38% increase in minimum stipends. The average salary for a graduate employee who works both semesters at NYU is $35,000 per year. NYU grad workers also won:

  • paid health insurance for the first time
  • guaranteed tuition/fee waivers for all graduate employees covered by the contract
  • a fair grievance procedure
  • protection against having RA/TA appointments withdrawn at the last minute
  • workload protections
  • increased child care subsidies
  • $100 per day for required pre-semester training or orientation.

Recently, graduate student workers in the University of California system ratified a contract that included:

  • A 17% stipend increase over 4 years
  • Expansion of paid leave for parents from 4 to 6 weeks
  • 50% increase in child care subsidy
  • Access to lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, subject to a fair grievance procedure
  • Labor-management committees to:
    • ensure access to professional options for undocumented grad student workers equivalent to those available to all grad students
    • track student-teacher ratios


Can graduate students at private universities like Penn seek union representation?

Yes! As you can read in more detail elsewhere on this website, graduate students have the right to collectively bargain in the wake of the August 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This decision is the latest chapter in the long history of graduate student organizing in the United States of America.

Which graduate students have the right to unionize?

The 2016 Columbia decision recognizes that research and teaching assistants at private universities labor under common conditions, face similar challenges, and share related grievances, and thus permits them to form a union at their university. The decision recognizes that graduate student workers function as both students and employees. Any student at a private university who has to teach or do research as part of their degree requirements and/or in exchange for compensation is now legally considered eligible to collectively bargain. This decision applies to several categories of graduate student assistants, including doctoral students, masters’ students, and other students who have an employment relationship with the university for at least some part of their time at Penn. GET-UP is working to include all students with an employment relationship with the university in our bargaining unit (link to bargaining unit below).

How would people who are workers at Penn, but not eligible for the union, be affected?

Raising the standards of graduate student workers at the university raises the status of all graduate students. Our efforts to unionize will help to improve the conditions of graduate students across Penn, even those who are not eligible to be part of the union. Furthermore, GET-UP’s is committed to advocating for a better Penn community, especially for students from marginalized or historically underrepresented groups. We see our union as an opportunity to use our resources and collective voice to advocate for our whole community.

Are faculty at Penn unionized?

Penn faculty are not unionized. While many faculty at public universities have unions, faculty at private universities do not have the legal right to collectively bargain due to the Supreme Court decision made on February 20, 1980 in a case called National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, 444 U.S. 672 (1980). The decision has not been revisited in the 37 years since the ruling.

Are private schools like Penn different from state schools when it comes to union representation of graduate students?

No. At both private schools and state schools, graduate students may seek union representation. Moreover, at both public and private schools, graduate students make equally important contributions to the daily operations, economic success, and prestige of the university. Indeed, in the Columbia case, the NLRB rebutted arguments made by Penn and other universities in their Amicus brief (an argument that Penn repeats in its FAQs) that tried to establish a fundamental difference between graduate students at private and state schools.





How would a union come to represent graduate students at Penn?

By organizing and calling ourselves a union of graduate students who have common interests, we are already a union. The challenge is to get Penn to recognize our union and, as a corollary, graduate students as workers. There are two routes via which GET-UP would become the sole collective bargaining agent of graduate students. GET-UP can either use the legal mechanisms afforded by the NLRA and overseen by the NLRB to compel Penn to recognize us as a union of workers, or we can ask Penn to voluntarily recognize our union as the sole collective bargaining representative of graduate students.

When it comes to “representation,” the routes to recognition are distinct from our democratic practices of union governance, more about which you’ll find below.

What is a bargaining unit?

The ‘bargaining unit’ is the group of graduate student workers that would be covered by the contract that GET-UP negotiates with Penn. The 2016 Columbia decision recognizes that research and teaching assistants at private universities labor under common conditions, face similar challenges, and share related grievances, and thus permits them to form a single bargaining unit.

How can the NLRB help us to make Penn recognize our union?

The Columbia decision determined that graduate students belong to a category of workers who qualify for the protections and provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB oversees the process by which graduate students petition to have the Columbia precedent applied to them and elect a collective bargaining representative (i.e. GET-UP).

We would begin by asking our members to sign “authorization cards,” which is the legal mechanism by which graduate students petition the NLRB to hold a referendum to determine whether the majority of graduate students would like GET-UP to represent them in collective bargaining negotiations. GET-UP would need to file a total number of authorization cards equal to or greater than 30% of the proposed bargaining unit in order to trigger an election.

This petition also asks the NLRB to apply the Columbia precedent to graduate students at Penn. The university can ask for hearings to determine the applicability of this precedent to graduate students, as well as to determine the validity of the proposed bargaining unit. According to NLRB guidelines, there should not be a gap greater than 21 days between filing authorization cards and holding an election, which limits the possibility of using hearings as a delaying tactic.

Once the applicability of the precedent has been established, and the bargaining unit agreed, an election will be held as soon as possible. Should more than 50% of ballots cast say “yes,” then GET-UP will enter into collective bargaining negotiations with Penn.

Will Penn voluntarily recognize a graduate student union?

Penn’s own FAQs indicate that it is unlikely that Penn will voluntarily recognize our union, especially without first holding an election. If Penn were to voluntarily recognize our union, it would do so on the basis of a negotiated, bilateral agreement between GET-UP and Penn.

What is union democracy?

When you sign a GET-UP membership card, you become a member of GET-UP. Our union is governed by a constitution that empowers our members to participate directly in decision making. Our constitution reflects our ambition to be as non-hierarchical as possible, make decisions by consensus as a first option, and allow members to bring topics of concern to meetings without prior approval. We hope that our structure makes for an community that not only thrives on the voices of the many and critical debate, but also for a union that turns dialogue into consequential action. Our constitution ensures that every graduate student at Penn has the opportunity to join GET-UP and democratically influence the direction of our union.

We also have an open and flexible coordinating committee that meets once a week and looks after the day-to-day coordination of activism, organizes membership meetings, and makes sure that we’re sticking to the decisions of and direction set by the general membership. Coordinating committee meetings are open to all members.

Finally, we have a variety of working groups. Any member can propose the formation of a working group at a general membership meeting, and any member is welcome to join any working group.

Does GET-UP’s affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, pay Penn grads to undertake organizing work?

No. Since the start of our campaign graduate students have organized on a voluntary basis in the belief that unionization is an important cause.

How can I be sure that my voice will be heard in the union?

GET-UP is determined to be democratic and accountable to members via the mechanisms described above. If you are concerned about the legibility and prioritization of your situation or a particular issue, the best thing to do is to speak to an organizer about how the structure of our union could best address the problem. GET-UP is a community of converging interests, the content and intersections of which cannot be articulated in advance. Instead, the issues upon which our union will campaign and the processes by which they are determined are made and remade through conversations and democratic innovation.

Why is GET-UP canvassing at graduate student workers’ houses?

GET-UP needs to speak to every single graduate student worker who might eligible to be in the bargaining unit. At the least, all students have a right to know what unionization is, why it matters, and how they can be part of the process. During these conversations, many choose to disclose their concerns about graduate student life, and together we share ideas about how a union could address them.

We have discovered in the course of our visits to different schools and departments that some students’ work spaces overlap with those of their advisors and administrators, which makes it difficult to have a private conversation. We also have not been able to find some graduate students who work in restricted spaces. Thus, in order to overcome these issues, and ensure that we are able to reach all graduate student workers in a context where we can have a confidential conversation, we have been visiting students’ homes

Canvassing door-to-door is not unusual: is it a staple tactic of any movement or campaign, and is the norm on a large unionizing effort like ours. Employers have an unfair advantage when it comes to contacting employees: Amy Gutmann can send an email to all graduate students whenever she chooses, while GET-UP cannot. As an alternative, we acquire grads’ addresses from publicly available election rolls so that we have the opportunity to speak to as many people about our union as possible.

While many are glad to have a private conversation about their experiences and challenges, and how a union could help them, we recognize that canvassing door-to-door is not always welcome, and have created a form for both members and non-members who do not wish to be visited at home. GET-UP is about building community amongst graduate students, so we still want to talk to you about your union and have included an option to schedule a meeting on the form.



What happens if there is an election and the union wins?

When we win our election, GET-UP will become the collective bargaining representative for graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania.

What is collective bargaining?

When individual workers ask their employers for better conditions, their demands are not often met. However, when workers who labor under common conditions bargain with their employer as a group, they have more success. Our union, once recognized, will negotiate a contract with the University of Pennsylvania.

What are the issues that will be covered in negotiations?

No decisions have been made about which issues will be covered during negotiations because we want our union to be democratic and participatory. During our conversations with and presentations to graduate students throughout the university, we’ve discussed what a union could do for them, the university, and the wider community. Through these many one-on-one conversations, we’re learning about the issues that matter most to grads, which will inform future negotiations.

After winning a union election, one of the first things that GET-UP will do is democratically decide how graduate students should be represented during negotiations. Under normal circumstances, unions hold internal elections for positions on the bargaining committee. The bargaining committee is a representative group of graduate students responsible for surveying the needs of graduate students and determining what issues are covered in negotiations. Along with a negotiator provided by the AFT, they are also responsible for formulating a negotiation strategy.

How are student interests represented in these negotiations? Do students get input into what they believe are problems and what issues should be addressed? If so, which students are these? Who will be the leadership of the union?

This is how Penn’s own FAQs phrases the question, running together issues of representation, leadership, and voice. Please see above and below for more detailed answers. In short, student interests are represented by a bargaining committee that has been democratically elected. The bargaining committee is responsible for surveying and cataloguing which problems and issues should be addressed. GET-UP is a membership organization: we make the decisions.

We scoured the website of the Penn Board of Trustees for an FAQ but were unable to locate one. One question frequently asked by graduate students is: “How are graduate student interests represented to the Board of Trustees? Do students get input into what they believe are problems and what issues should be addressed? If so, which students are these? Who decides who will be on the Board of Trustees?”

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I vote?

This is another of Penn’s questions, we should ask in return: which vote do you mean, Provost? The recognition process laid out by the NLRB says that an recognition election must be held and won before contract negotiations begin. Once the contract has been negotiated to the satisfaction of bargaining committee, the members will vote on whether to ratify it. To restate, there will be another vote amongst the bargaining unit on whether to sign the contract, and the terms and conditions of employment will be available to members before that vote. If members vote not to ratify the contract, a new bargaining committee will be appointed and negotiations will recommence.

If I object to a specific provision in the signed labor contract, am I still bound by it?

Yes, but all members will have had a chance to indicate their priorities and raise dissent to specific provisions to which they object.

Are all graduate students within the bargaining unit bound by the contract?

All graduate students in the bargaining unit will help to determine what should be prioritized in contract negotiations, and all members will be able to vote on whether to ratify the contract that our elected representatives negotiate. If we vote to ratify the contract, then it will represent all members of the bargaining unit.

Do all the employees identified in the bargaining unit have to join the union?

While all employees identified within the bargaining unit are bound by and receive the benefits of the contract, not all members of the bargaining unit need to join GET-UP. Under current Pennsylvania law, those who are not members of the union but are part of the bargaining unit pay an ‘agency fee’ that is slightly lower than membership dues. Importantly, being a member of GET-UP enables you to participate in the democratic life of the union.

Could a union contract negatively impact my situation as a graduate student?

GET-UP would not negotiate, nor would members ratify, a contract that materially harmed a member. In other words, GET-UP would not negotiate and ratify a contract that led to either a decrease in real wages or loss of benefits for any of our members.

The aim of our campaign is to improve the material conditions of graduate students via collective power. We take grads’ concerns about their circumstances very seriously. GET-UP members recently voted to incorporate a ‘no harm clause’ into our constitution, which will ensure that a contract will not lead to a real-wage decrease or loss of benefits for any members. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that no graduate student employee receiving a fellowship stipend shall have that stipend reduced as a consequence of their assignment to a position covered by a union contract. It is a guarantee to members that they will not lose out by supporting the union.

What are dues, why do we pay them, and how much will they be?

Dues are the amount of money that people pay to be a member of a union. As members only start paying dues when a contract is in place and they are receiving its benefits, no one will pay dues until GET-UP has petitioned for and won a representation election, and negotiated and ratified a contract with Penn.

Dues will go toward running our local on Penn’s campus. Dues typically pay for staff who protect workers and organize events, as well as more mundane operating expenses, such as having an office with an internet connection. Dues also support the efforts of our affiliate, the AFT, in PA and beyond. The AFT campaigns for student debt forgiveness legislation, facilitates national solidarity with other organizing campaigns, and serves community members. The AFT also provides services, help, and support to locals in order to benefit from economies of scale.

Dues are set by the membership of GET-UP after the contract has been negotiated. The sequence is important: grads would not likely vote to set dues rates greater than the increase in salary from contract negotiations, so it is implausible that members of the bargaining would see real decreases in take-home pay. While caution concerning dues is understandable, it’s also worth noting other potential union gains, besides increased stipends, that save members’ money, such as improved health benefits.

Graduate unions throughout the United States have typically set dues at levels that are 1-2% of gross pay, which we think is a realistic expectation at Penn. As is the norm in adjunct unions, you will only pay dues during a ‘service year,’ when you are legally working for the university. Should that be the case, then don’t worry: you will remain a member of GET-UP and have voting rights when you’re on a ‘fellowship year,’ even though you will not pay dues. As these are matters are for the membership of GET-UP to decide after the contract has been bargained, the final details will be determined democratically.

Some members have asked for more clarity about dues obligations to AFT and AFL-CIO; follow this link for details.

It is important to remember that teachers and educators from across the country are paying for GET-UP to have the resources and staff to run our campaign. Dues pay for campaigns that allow workers to build power across an industry and shape the institutions that they want to be a part of and see in the world.

How long does it take to reach agreement on a contract?

Contract negotiations do take time and there is no limit prescribed by law. Generally speaking, prolonged negotiations tend to benefit the employer rather than the union. GET-UP will always bargain in good faith, with the aim of generating the best possible benefits from contract negotiations for graduate students in the shortest amount of time.

Do protracted negotiations affect graduate students?

That will largely be up to Penn. While federal law prohibits an employer from making any changes in the terms or conditions of employment of the members of the bargaining unit, GET-UP would in principle not be opposed to Penn improving the conditions of graduate students during negotiations. It would be possible for Penn and GET-UP to come to a legal agreement that the latter will not prevent the former from making positive changes to the terms or conditions of employment in order to make sure that graduate students are not affected by protracted negotiations. For example, if Penn wished to increase graduate student stipends during negotiations, then GET-UP would be able to make a legal agreement with Penn to facilitate this.

Could faculty members make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the needs of individual graduate students?

Union contracts are flexible and can cover any exceptions that can be foreseen by parties during negotiations. For example, if you could foresee a situation in which an individual graduate student wanted to teach in a particular semester in order to schedule around a research opportunity or needed a semester away from teaching for personal or academic reasons, then the contract could be written to accommodate such a possibility.

Bargaining in good faith means providing all information about potential exceptions required so that they can be negotiated. In principle, GET-UP is committed to improving the collective well being of graduate students and to accommodating the needs of as many of its members as possible. Unions represent people, not contracts: if something is not working, then GET-UP will work with the university to find a mutually beneficial solution.

If Penn wanted to improve a graduate student benefit in the contract, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?

The contract will determine whether and how Penn could improve graduate student benefits before the end of the contract. Were Penn to want to provide additional benefits in a manner prohibited by the contract before its end, it would have to recognize that graduate students have democratically decided that GET-UP will be their sole collective bargaining representative. Therefore, Penn could approach GET-UP with an offer, and reach an agreement to award additional benefits. GET-UP believes that graduate students should participate in making decisions that affect their material well being, no matter how beneficent the offer on the table.

What if Penn and the union couldn’t agree on the terms of a contract?

Penn and GET-UP will be legally obligated to bargain in good faith. We believe that Penn and GET-UP will be able to reach an agreement, just like the administration at NYU and those at public universities across the country have reached agreements with graduate unions.

How would unionization affect faculty-student relationships?

A recent study has found that unionizing had an overwhelmingly positive effect on faculty-student relationships. More broadly, graduate students could look forward to better relationships with the administration, as many studies have found that unionization has positive effects on employer-employee relations.

If there were a union, would faculty members be limited in what they could discuss with graduate students?

A contract cannot control what students and faculty talk about. However, it can protect students from losing protections and employment. It can also provide avenues to address inappropriate behaviors, such as sexual harassment or discrimination, through a neutral and confidential body that is capable of resolving conflicts.

If there were a union, would there be University committees on which graduate students would lose representation?

GAPSA and the G-12 governments are democratically elected bodies composed of our colleagues, who work hard to allocate large amounts of money, largely without pay. Despite their valuable work, the university only grants these organizations advisory powers. A union, on the other hand, is not an advisory body, and would be empowered to negotiate with the administration with the force of law. It is likely that some of these committees would have to be redesigned to reflect the new, more democratic reality of graduate student participation.

If there were a union, would there be committees for which the union would be responsible for appointing representatives instead of GAPSA?

Generally speaking, it is likely that GAPSA would continue to deal with issues affecting graduate student life and building community amongst graduate students in all twelve of Penn’s schools. GET-UP would be responsible for issues covered in the contract.

If there were a union, would some number of grad students be priced out of existence?  If a union demanded that TAs earn more money, would the University have to cut back on the number of graduate students?

That would be up to Penn. GET-UP hopes that an institution with an endowment of $10.7 billion (as of June 2016) would not try to pin declining enrollment numbers on members of its own community who are asking for better working conditions.