PSU grad employees seek PSEA representation

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PSU grad employees seek PSEA representation

Voice: May 2017


The late 1960s hit by Aretha Franklin has been covered many times over the years by other artists. Now, it’s the chorus line for Penn State University’s graduate employees as they attempt to organize union representation by PSEA.

The Penn State Coalition of Graduate Employees garnered enough signatures to petition for an election to form a union in February, and is awaiting a series of hearings in September scheduled by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to hear Penn State’s legal challenge against the petition.

“We feel very strongly about unionizing mainly because we are not being treated with respect by the administration and the university,” said Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, a spokesperson for the coalition. “A union will allow us to have a seat at the table when the university is talking about changes and things that impact graduate employees.”

The organizing effort is rooted in a change to graduate employees’ health care a couple of years ago, but it’s a rash of issues that got the grad employees and PSEA talking about a union, according to Connor Lewis, a UniServ representative in PSEA’s State College office.

In addition to health care, he cited the following issues:

  • Gender pay gaps.
  • A significant percentage of graduate employees making less than the
  • average annual Centre County living wage of $20,000.
  • Child care credits, a major issue for graduate employees with families.
  • Many grad employees are working as many as 60 hours a week even though they are classified as part-time employees and contracted to work 20 hours a week.
  • Many grad employees are teaching several classes, while also having to do their own research.

 “Students with families, in particular, were hurt by draconian changes to health care that were imposed unilaterally,” Sherman-Wilkins said. “Some of the stories of grad employees living paycheck to paycheck, and not making a living wage, are just heartbreaking.

“Overall, we are just not adequately compensated for time that benefits (undergraduate) students and the university. It’s a cliché, but with a union we will have strength in numbers.”

Penn State’s legal filing challenges the graduate employees’ right to unionize, and also the scope of the bargaining unit.

However, Lewis noted there is precedent. Grad employees at Temple University organized under the American Federation of Teachers in 2001.

He said there are more than 30 organized grad employee locals nationally, including one as large as 10,000 members that represents the entire state of California. In addition to Penn State, Lewis said grad employees have started organizing efforts at the University of Pennsylvania under the AFT, and at the University of Pittsburgh under the United Steelworkers of America.

Penn State has 3,500 graduate employees, including branch campuses. The employees are research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructors of record.