Why a Contract?

Over the last few weeks, GET-UP has released multiple statements featuring dozens of testimonials about the issues we hope to address. Our union organizes around these grievances not only to raise awareness but also to build a community and find collective solutions that work for everybody. After winning recognition from our employer, Penn, we will enter into negotiations with them over the terms of our labor. The outcome of these bargaining sessions, once ratified by our membership, will be fixed in a contract: a legally-binding agreement that will define and govern the employment relationship between graduate student workers and the university.

A union contract will establish a clearly communicated set of expectations for our working conditions. However, the conditions of employment need not be the same for graduate student workers in every program, department, or school. Contracts can operate at different levels of generality and specificity: while a clause concerning healthcare, for example, can apply to everyone, an article on workers’ compensation may apply to a smaller population. In other words, while our community of interest defines the broadest scope of the contract, each section does not necessarily have to cover the same population.

Two aspects of the contract that will definitely affect the entire community of interest are the grievance procedure and ‘no harm clause.’ Should the university break with the terms of our agreement, the grievances of graduate student workers will be investigated and arbitrated by an independent body. The grievance procedure is inseparable from and guarantees the contract: its purpose is to resolve any dispute concerning the interpretation, application, or violation of a specific term or provision of the contract. This will enable graduate student workers to be confident in the terms of their working conditions, rely on a clearly communicated set of expectations, and fairly arbitrate academic issues related to labor disputes. GET-UP will also negotiate for a ‘no harm clause’ that will ensure that the application of our contract will not lead to a real-wage decrease or loss of benefits for any members. It is a guarantee to members that they will not lose out by supporting the union.

The administration has implied that entering into contract negotiations with a graduate student union is fraught with uncertainty. Of course, their position is paradoxical given confusing statements that our admissions letters are versions of, or, “euphemisms for” contracts. To be clear, an admissions letter is not a contract: you will not get very far if you try to litigate an admissions letter in a court of law. Overall, we find the administration’s skepticism disingenuous. Skepticism about contract negotiations is not a part of informed debate: we have over fifty years of data to help shape a platform for negotiation. Other unions have negotiated contracts that contain significant and lasting improvements to their working conditions. In doing so, they have established a long and clear precedence of what unions can achieve. What this means is that when we go into negotiations, we will not be starting from scratch. Anything we achieve is predicated on what already exists—albeit non-contractually—at Penn. With this in mind, what is important to note is not necessarily the details of what other unions have achieved, impressive though they are, but that they had a voice at the table on these issues.

Take dental coverage. The Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan has negotiated for their employer to pay “100% of the premium” for their dental plan (Article 11, Section B). The Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU negotiated the same (Article 18, Section C).

Or consider family and dependent support. The contract between GEO at the University of Michigan and their administration stipulates that the University will pay 75% of the insurance premiums for dependents and 66% for spouses or partners (Appendix C). To defray the costs of childcare, the University of California Student-Workers Union has negotiated for the university to offer $1,350 per semester to graduate students with children (Article 4, Section B1).

We know that personal and family health care, as well as mental health care will be on the negotiating table because healthcare has been a key issue in graduate organizing campaigns since 1970, when the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison won greater benefits. Perhaps more importantly, unions help to protect what we already have. As this letter to the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State University explains, unions can help prevent significant and costly gaps in coverage, and provide redress when they do.

Other graduate unions have gone to extensive lengths to address issues affecting international student workers. Recent contracts have included discrimination protections for international graduate workers, such as GEO at the University of Michigan (Appendix C, Side Letter). Others have included provisions for defraying the costs of SEVIS/visa fees. The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State University has negotiated a contract that includes reimbursement of up to $360 for these costs (Article 12, Section 3). The faculty union at the University of Oregon has stipulated for “[a]ll fees associated with applying for or renewing an H1B or J1 visa” to be paid for by the University (Article 28, Section 6).

Graduate student workers at Penn have raised the issue of being denied inclusion in Penn’s workers’ compensation policies. Other graduate unions have had bargained over this, too. The Cornell University administration, which had been hostile to including graduate students in workers’ compensation, changed its policy in 2015 under pressure from Cornell Graduate Students United. A union of postdocs at the University of California moved the UC administration to provide workers’ compensation in their latest contract.

Recently, the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Michigan broadened the scope of what graduate unions can achieve when they pushed for the inclusion of “diversity workers” in their latest contract. GEO argued that the burden of advocating for policies that ensure equity is labor and should be protected in a legally-binding contract. In response to opposition from the University of Michigan administration, Michigan grads organized grade-ins, sit-ins, rallies, and marches. Their actions were successful: their new contract includes the provisions for six paid graduate student staff positions to implement the University’s new “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.”

Some victories are yet to be won, and some concerns that GET-UP have raised have not been subject to collective bargaining in higher education. The ability to negotiate over issues concerning intellectual property and fellowship funding would be triumph for graduate student workers at Penn and beyond. There is reason for optimism: the history of the union movement is one of expansion where new issues are arbitrated and each successive contact offers new gains.  Gains of historic importance can include raises in salary like the 4% that NYU achieved in 2015, or they can include opening up new areas of negotiation. Even in campaigns that break new ground, contract campaigns can be both swift and democratic, as indicated by the timeline for Michigan GEO’s recent negotiations.

GET-UP, as a union of graduate student workers, will negotiate a strong contract that covers an expansive range of issues and clearly communicates expectations to graduate student workers. Contracts are tools that allow unions to install a vision of how a fair and respectful workplace should function over the long term by recording and protecting benefits. As a union with a broad base of support from across the university and beyond, we are confident in our ability to achieve our aims.