What motivates graduate students to become graduate students? Unquenchable curiosity, a love of their field, or a desire to push the boundaries of human knowledge? Any grad student would probably point to their passion for learning. But in the same breath, that grad student would also tell you that passion doesn’t pay rent. When it boils down to it, graduate students are workers for the university they attend: they’re people who have bills to pay, need healthcare coverage, and vacation time. And at Penn, in order to wield their collective power as graduate workers and have control over the terms of their employment, Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania (GET–UP) are seeking to form a union. 

In part galvanized by the pandemic and the rising cost of living, GET–UP is fighting for increased financial security and transparency of working conditions, protections from workplace harassment, and equality for international and disabled students. But perhaps most importantly, forming a union would guarantee that grad students have a say in negotiations with administration around these issues.  

“Right now, Penn unilaterally decides the terms of our wages, our health benefits, and working conditions. But with the power of a union, we can democratically and collectively bargain for the kinds of benefits and protections that we need to do this work,” says Jenny Lee, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in communications and GET–UP organizer. 

Currently, the majority of support for GET–UP comes from doctoral students, according to Lee. However, while the union is called Graduate Employees Together, anyone who performs academic work—including undergrads and masters students who work as research and teaching assistants—can join the union. GET–UP is striving to have a very inclusive bargaining unit. If they are successful in forming a recognized union, they will be one of the biggest graduate worker unions in higher education in the United States, according to Samuel Layding, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, AAUP executive board member at–large, and GET–UP organizer.  

On April 24, GET–UP announced that over 1,900 students had signed union authorization cards. The strength of GET–UP was not a sudden development this spring, but rather the result of consistent organizing for the past several years, Layding notes.

GET–UP’s first attempt at forming a union was in 2003. What began as a campus–wide battle went federal when the students testified in front the Senate for their right to unionize. A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, the agency of the federal government that enforces labor law, determined that graduate students were not employees, crippling GET–UP’s ability to unionize. Then in August of 2016, the door for unionization was opened when the NLRB ruled that graduate students at Columbia University were employees who have the right to collectively bargain, setting a precedent for grad students at other private universities. This decision overturned that previous NRLB decision. However, the triumph of the Columbia decision was short lived, as a Trump–appointed board threatened to overturn this landmark decision if the NRLB voted on GET–UP’s case. In order to prevent this possible setback in grad workers’ rights, GET–UP ultimately withdrew their petition to unionize. GET–UP continues to push for grad workers’ rights—now, with a “Union Joe”–appointed NRLB and the current higher education unionization and strike wave, GET–UP is determined to make the third time a charm.  

In the mean time, grad students have had plenty of conversations about the issues they face in the workplace, changes they want to see, and how they want those changes made. 

“One of the main challenges [of organizing] is just that it takes time,” Sam Samore, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in english and GET–UP organizer, says. “I think the whole point of unionizing to me is for us to have collective power over our workplace and that in order for that to make any sense, we have to have relationships with each other and know what's going on in each other's lives. But doing that takes time.”  

These conversations are the heart and soul of organizing, and in turn the union—especially because many of GET–UP's members are first–time organizers. “It’s not like [organizers] have this preconceived idea of the union and then they just force it on everybody, right? They talk to people, and the ideas and the content of the union emerges from those conversations,” says David Kazanjian, a professor of English and communications secretary of the faculty union, AAUP–Penn.

Right now, GET–UP’s goal is to keep having these conversations, collecting union authorization cards, and preparing for an election in the fall. But while they've been working to build up support, the University has been working just as hard to take them down.  

Penn administration’s response to GET–UP and all other unionization efforts happening on campus has been overwhelmingly unsupportive. They’ve posted a variety of anti–union websites to “inform” people about grad student organizing and its impacts, presenting their information as accurate and neutral. In reality, much of the information Penn presented in these websites were not reflective of the facts, according to Kazanjian.  

GET–UP leaders say that many of these websites promote classic anti–union talking points created by anti–union law firms and consultants that employers have used since the 1970s. It’s similar messaging that executives at big companies like Starbucks and Amazon have used in recent years. However, the more people are exposed to union campaigns and witness these recycled talking points, the easier it becomes to discern the inaccuracies and biased nature of union–busting campaigns.  

“I think the misinformation is devious, but it's oftentimes not especially convincing,” Samore says. “You can see so many new union efforts winning by such big margins. All the universities are using the same tactics where these campaigns are happening, and they don’t really work that well.” 

Penn emailed these antiquated websites to faculty with instructions to pass them along to students by the end of the school year. In response, AAUP–Penn launched a labor solidarity campaign to counter these messages. On June 8, they sent a letter to University administrators calling on them to stop their anti–union campaigns, pointing out the bias in their ostensibly neutral information. For example, the FAQ website portrays unions as third parties that stand in the way of workers’ relationships with their employees, but AAUP–Penn explained the irony of this viewpoint, as unions are comprised of workers themselves. 

The President of the Faculty Senate, Tulia Falleti, responded to AAUP–Penn’s letter stating that Penn administration is not obligated to remain neutral in unionization campaigns. “Basically, [the administration] admitted that they are trying to discourage the union. But then, of course, they’re presenting these [websites] as if they are neutral,” Kazanjian says. 

By sending websites to faculty and calling faculty “supervisors,” in order to undermine worker solidarity, Penn has tried to pit professors against students—another classic union–busting tactic. However, professors aren’t extensions of a university's administration—they aren't involved in the decisions made about grad students' rights.

“I don't think any grad student who is actively involved in organizing is doing it because they want their PI to be worse off,” Layding says. They further add that when grad students’ needs are met, relationships with faculty will be stronger since students are able to get better work done. It’s a lot easier to focus on biology research when you don’t have lingering thoughts of overdue bills.  

In fact, faculty and grad students often face similar economic realities, particularly adjunct and nontenure track faculty. Since 1987, the number of faculty who work full–time at public and private colleges and universities but aren’t on tenure track has tripled

“There’s a very crucial symbiotic relationship between grad students and faculty and academia,” Layding says. Faculty and their grad students are at the forefront of groundbreaking advancements. In order to progress, both groups need to be at their best—and unions are often the way of reaching those goals. 

Unions are powerful forces. Throughout history, they have achieved bread–and–butter changes, like higher wages and better benefits. But they also have the potential to negotiate and transform the structure of a university itself. Issues that impact the greater Philadelphia community, like PILOTS payments and reduced presence of Penn police, are all union fights.  

At the end of the day, grad students, dining hall staff, museum staff, and residential advisors are all Penn employees. And Penn, like every other business (or "nonprofit," as Penn calls itself), needs its workers. “I think that the more unionized workers there are at Penn and the more the unions collaborate with each other and show up for each other, the better,” Samore says. With resident advisors recently filing to form a union, Penn Med residents and fellows entering the bargaining stage of their union campaign, and Penn Museum workers getting their first contract, this is an exciting time for workers’ empowerment at Penn. 

“The emergence of multiple public unionization campaigns on campus … is indicative of the larger shift in cultural norms right now around labor organizing,” Layding says. Building up this union density at Penn is the basis for fighting for better standards across the board, and GET–UP’s union campaign is a crucial part of this broader vision: one in which unions belong at Penn.