By Sasha Berkman
The office of the GET-UP campaign (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania) at 4305 Locust sits just off the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, nestled among the delis and restaurant fronts. Inside, the spartan feel to the decor contradicts the warmth exhibited by the people scattered throughout the long room. Pairs of organizers and activists cycle in and out reporting on their canvassing work. They have been canvassing for weeks in an attempt to make the case to their peers that a union is not only good, but necessary. The goal is to authorize a vote that would allow the graduate workers at Penn to choose whether or not to unionize.
The effort has made once isolated departments begin to interact and discover that, “…[our] concerns were not gripes or personal issues, but university-wide structural problems.” According to the GET-UP website “Through these conversations, GET-UP activists aim to connect all graduate student employees to the union campaign with the ultimate goal of creating a democratic coalition of graduate student employees.”
The current effort has its roots in an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) ruling from spring of 2016 that overturned a prior ruling that graduate students were not workers and could not unionize. According to Salar Mohandesi, an activist at the campaign and a current History PhD student, “[we were] encouraged by the legal ruling, and inspired by similar campaigns at peer institutions, we decided to organize a formal campaign at Penn.” Shortly after, GET-UP voted overwhelming to affiliate with the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) who, according to a Department of Labor report, boast around 1.5 million members and represent public educators and nurses, among others. The effort went public in March and canvassing has commenced in earnest.
But the campaign has its original roots in a 2000 push for a grad student union at Penn. The original GET-UP campaign was very nearly successful. They got the signatures necessary to authorize the unionization vote, and, despite a lengthy legal delay effort by the Penn administration, the vote finally took place. According to exit polls, the vote was overwhelming yes, but before the votes could be officially counted a Bush-era shake up to the NLRB reversed the Clinton board’s decision that graduate workers could unionize and thus nullified the effort.
Though the effort failed, the current campaign points to the substantial gains that the administration, in order to deter a union, had given graduate workers. During the 2000 campaign graduate workers were given raises (up from $12,000 a year to $17,500 a year) and healthcare for all PhD students.
By any meaningful measure there should already be a union of graduate workers at Penn, but chicanery from the Penn administration and conservative politicians guaranteed it would not permit democracy to prevail. The 2000 GET-UP campaign was sabotaged.
Graduate workers without vision-care, what could go wrong?
The GET-UP website contains stories from graduate workers describing scenarios of abuse by the administration. As graduate workers they are responsible for conducting research and teaching courses for the university (on top of taking courses), typical living stipends range from $25,000 to $32,000 per year. These living stipends are not guaranteed for more than 5 years, often requiring students who need additional time to complete their degree to seek alternative funding or go into debt to pay costs. Yearly increases to stipends have also failed to match rising inflation rates.
Other issues grads say need to be addressed include basic vision and dental care, improved healthcare, better security for international students, workers compensation, intellectual property (the rights to their intellectual work), and an independent grievance procedure. All of which they say only a union contract can adequately address.
The grievance procedure for example, tends to favor “departmental harmony” by placing power in the hands of the departments to pursue grievance. Outside of the obvious abuses such a system invites, graduate workers also fear for reprisals. Danielle Hanley, an activist for GET-UP and 5th year Political Science PhD student, echoed this concern, “ I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard about people experiencing harassment or discrimination and feeling as though they could not speak up about it because they might jeopardize their position in the program.”
According to the GET-UP website the union’s grievance procedure would be, “inseparable from and guarantee the contract”. Assuring that grievances are not swept under the rug but instead reviewed by a third party, while prioritizing the the victim of abuse. Activists say that only through contract can they be guaranteed anything.
Threats from within and without
The unexpected results of the election in November have put the union effort into a difficult position. Currently the union is attempting to do what would ideally be allowed to take place over two years in less than half that time.
Mohandesi sees the election of the Trump administration as the campaigns greatest threat, fearing a repeat of the Bush NLRB shake up, “…there are two vacancies on the NLRB at the moment, and when Trump fills them, it’s guaranteed that our right to collectively bargain will be taken away again.” Authoritarians traditionally target unions, as democratizing forces that shift power to the public they are unacceptable. And the Trump administration, for all its talk of the American worker, seems dead-set on pursuing virulent anti-worker policy. He has supported instituting national “right-to-work” laws and has placed bankers and CEO’s whose money is made on worker insecurity into cabinet positions.
Organizers must also contend with an unfriendly administration. According to Danielle, “Amy Guttman [President of the university] has come out with a letter which basically attempts to scare graduate student workers by trying to convince them that unionizing will detrimentally affect their relationship with professors.” This is directly contradicted by a letter signed by nearly 80 professors at Penn expressing support for the unionization campaign. Hanley believes this is partially motivated by the administration’s “…fear of having to look graduate student workers in the eye when it has to make the decisions that affect the conditions of our labor, and our lives.”
For the activists and organizers this means one thing: organize, and fast. The organizers have spent every day for the past several months going door-to-door, lab-to-lab, and making countless phone calls to reach the over 3,000 Ph.D. and Master’s students, to make the case for the union. In Salar’s experience, “…the majority of graduate students we have spoken to have been receptive to the idea of a union. Most want to talk, share their experiences, and learn more about the campaign.”
Unions and the endless struggle to expand democracy
Unions in 2017 sit in a historically weak position, membership is at an all-time low (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017 US Average union membership sits at 10.7% of the workforce, compared with 14.1% in 1997, and over 20% in 1983).
As such, unions must re-imagine their purpose within society in order to regain their foothold and remain important democratizing forces in society.
In an address to the First International Karl Marx said, “Apart from their original purpose, they [the unions] must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation,”, and that they, “…must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction.”. In other words unions must organize around class-conscious principles, which must crucially include issues of gender, race, colonialism, etc.
Consciousness raising must be deliberately built, and the graduate workers at Penn seem acutely aware and have taken steps to address them. For example, by creating a standing, “Unity Committee”, which Danielle says, “serves as a forum to discuss and work on resolving issues that those who are historically under-represented or marginalized…tend to face…includ[ing] discrimination based on…race, nationality, ethnicity, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, age, religion, and ability.”
More broadly though a graduate worker union would play a role in shifting the balance of power in Philadelphia from within the heart of the city’s largest private business. The University is the largest private employer in the city – it is a major landowner and force for gentrification, and is influential in the financial sector sending more undergraduates to Wall Street than any other American university. A union would make for a more democratically run university, which would be more accountable to, and thus more reflective of, the interests of their workers and the Philadelphia community.
According to Hanley, the best way to get involved would be to follow their social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter (@GETUPgrads) to follow updates and see upcoming events. And if you’re interested in directly being a part of the campaign she says organizers from other groups have joined in the canvassing effort. And, “If you know graduate student workers at Penn, you can direct them our way. Every little bit helps our campaign!”