A union is an organized group of workers who have come together to collectively bargain for their rights and to have a voice in decisions that affect graduate students’ lives and working conditions. For decades, our counterparts within public (and some private) universities across the country have organized themselves into unions and have shaped their universities to become more responsive to graduate student needs. This is because United States labor law allows organized workers to negotiate and bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment. Unlike other student organizations that are more advisory in nature, a union provides a democratic voice to its members that is backed by the force of the law.
While unions are often framed as a thing of the past or an inappropriate organization for workers in the academy, organizing into a union is perhaps the most powerful way for graduate student workers to advocate for themselves as teachers and researchers within the university. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agreed with this sentiment in their August 2016 ruling that stated that graduate student workers are both students and employees of the university and, therefore, deserve all the standard protections of United States labor law. Accordingly, graduate student workers at private universities now have the legal right to organize themselves into unions and to exert more control over their stipends, healthcare, and childcare benefits as well as their working conditions as TAs and RAs. A graduate student union is also a resource center for its members, faculty, and administration as its members educate the university about their rights and ensure that its workers are treated fairly.
A union secures these kinds of benefits and protections for its workers by meeting their employer at the bargaining table and negotiating a contract. GET-UP will be the sole bargaining agent for graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania. Once our union is legally recognized through an election, representatives from our student body will negotiate a contract with representatives of the university. This contract will legally require the university to provide graduate student workers with an unprecedented say and power over our conditions of employment. By establishing our union, we—as the collectively organized graduate student workers at the university—will have secured real governing power over our teaching, researching, and other working conditions.