On Wednesday, October 18th, the Coalition of Graduate Employees held a ‘work-in’ demonstration in the Kern Graduate Building. This demonstration took place outside of the room where the Graduate Council was meeting, which creates and institutes policies for the Graduate School. There have been several like it in the past, including on Old Main lawn. During ‘work-ins’, Grad students conduct their work as a form of demonstration that they are more than mere students.
The Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) represents the more than 3,500 graduate employees at Penn State. They are the graduate assistants, teaching assistants and researchers at every department and college.
Within the last 2 years, they began a campaign to unionize graduate students at Penn State. According to youngworkers.org, a union is “an organized group of workers who come together to make decisions about their conditions of work”. By joining unions, workers are able to have a strong impact on their wages, work hours, benefits, safety and other concerns related to work etc. To give just a few examples, union demonstrations helped spark enough political momentum to give us the weekend, minimum wages, employer-based health insurance and work safety standards.
In February earlier this year, the CGE filed for representation with the PLRB. The PLRB is the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Months after the filing, on April 3rd, 2017, President Barron released the following statement: “…the University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. For this reason, Penn State opposes this petition for representation with the PLRB.”
But the relationship is hardly distinguishable between that of an employer and employee. Graduates sign contracts with the university, are on Penn State’s payroll, pay taxes, are provided a health insurance benefit etc. And a survey conducted by CGE showed that 94 percent of respondents reported being half-time Graduate Assistants, which is defined by the university as 20 hours per week. Yet, the results also indicated that 47 percent of respondents reported working for the university more than 20 hours per week.
Some of these students report discrepancies between what their contracts say their supposed to work, and what they actually work. According to the survey, students have said:
“It’s an absolute insult that my contract says I work 20 hours…I’ve been very explicitly told by people in power that it needs to be over 40 hours a week...”
“Half time? What a joke. I’m in the lab 50 plus hours a week.”
“I am funded as an appointment for 20 hours per week and paid accordingly. However, I am required to work a minimum of 50 and frowned on below 60-70...”
40 hours a week, is considered full-time work according to the federal government.
The poverty line in State College for a single person is approximately $22, 667 a year before taxes. GA’s receive about $21,000 in annual income (on average). With that, many are struggling to make ends meet.
Brianne Pragg, graduate student in Sociology and Demography, who is an active member of CGE, said “I know a number of grad employees who make so little that they need government assistance. It is not really uncommon.”
17 percent of respondents reported making under $18,000 a year. Of those 17, 63 percent stated they work more than 20 hours per week. The latest U.S. Census indicated that there were 360,000 graduate-degree holders on public assistance, with the number doubling from 2007 to 2010.
“We are workers and we are valuable to Penn State.” Brianne said. “The administration said during one of their hearings that the teaching we do is just done in service of the university, that research is just a part of training; when our research goes towards Penn State’s rankings as a research institution, and our teaching teaches undergraduates. I actually have a friend in mathematics, who did some calculations and found that about 30 percent of classes are taught by grad students. And that’s approximate, but the point is that this university would not be able to operate without our labor. It’s important that our labor is recognized, because really, it’s just insulting.”
Unions have been recognized by universities across the nation for decades, including Temple University in Philadelphia. Of the hundreds of American graduate schools, 33 have unions. Even so, the administration, Brianne says, is avoiding CGE. They would rather sneak into back doors than recognize the value of their labor.
The work-in on Wednesday was a respectful demonstration, and ended without major incident. Administrators walked out of the meeting room and avoided eye contact with the protestors. Many of them walked hurriedly, clearly flustered by the presence of graduate employees.
“This isn’t about everybody hating their university. We are doing this because we truly love Penn State, and we want it to be better. What we are trying to accomplish is good for everybody. When graduate employees are happy, they’re going to be able to produce better work.”
Indeed, a wealthy university with a reputation as a world-class research institution, and with one of the most successful college football programs in the country, should, at the very least, ensure that none of its graduate employees have to resort to government assistance. CGE proposes that graduate employees should have a basic living wage, and they deserve all the support they can get from the Penn State community.
And even though unionization will face opposition from higher-ups, remember what was written a year ago in the Collegian by Shakil Rabbi: “power can be derived from two sources – money or people. As PSU graduate employees, our power is clearly the latter.”
If you’d like more information on CGE, visit their website: http://cge-psu.com/
To get involved, please contact here: http://cge-psu.com/get-involved/
And don’t’ forget to give them a like on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cge.psu/, and follow them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cge_psu
Penn State College