March 4, 2003

U. Penn Grads Vote In Union Election

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The debate over graduate student unionization at the University of Pennsylvania reached a climax last week as eligible students hit the voting booths to express their opinions. However, it may be months before the campus learns of the results.

On Dec. 5, the Penn administration appealed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision to allow graduate students at Penn to unionize. During this appeals process, which could last for months, the votes will remain impounded.

As a result, both sides of the unionization question can only speculate. A Daily Pennsylvanian exit poll published yesterday showed that 60.4 percent of voters who responded supported a union while 35 percent opposed.

Joanna Kempner, spokesperson for Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) felt that the general sentiment at the polls seemed to be for unionization.

“A majority of eligible voters signed a petition stating their intention to vote ‘yes’ for union representation,” she stated. “Voter turnout was pretty strong, and we remain confident that we won by a comfortable margin.”

Lori Doyle, vice president of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, felt differently.

“All the indications we have received over the past two days, from the faculty and graduate students who we have heard from, were that GET-UP lost this election,” she said.

Disagreement of this sort, between union organizers and the University of Pennsylvania’s administration, typifies the two-year-long campaign.

Unlike at Cornell, where the University allowed the issue of unionization to come to a vote without appeal to the NLRB, Penn chose to fight, following the course of peer institutions Brown, Columbia and Tufts Universities.

According to Doyle, “The university chose to appeal because its academic leaders believe that the [NLRB] decision not only arbitrarily divides and discriminates among graduate students but also does a disservice to the interests and values of graduate education itself,” she said.

A statement from Penn’s provost’s office highlighted this argument, noting that the NLRB ruling concluded that only those graduate students employed as full-time or regular part-time TAs, teaching fellows, instructors, lecturers, graders and research assistants would be included in the bargaining unit.

In total, about 975 of Penn’s roughly 10,000 graduate students fell into this category and were therefore eligible to vote.

Kempner disagreed with this reasoning, viewing the appeal simply as part of Penn’s efforts to stymie the formation of the union.

“The administration has run one of the most vicious anti-union campaigns at any university,” Kempner argued. She suggested that Penn’s actions — including its encouragement of anti-union senior faculty to speak out — amounted to voter intimidation.

“Some graduate students hesitated to sign petitions, fearing their advisors’ reactions,” Kempner said.

But the most contentious issue came in the days leading up to the union vote.

According to NLRB procedure, graduate students who were not eligible to vote but felt that they should be included in the bargaining unit could cast a challenge vote. When tabulated, if these challenge votes could reverse the overall result, then the NLRB would have to consider each of these votes to determine whether it should be included.

In a memo dated Jan. 24, Penn Deputy Provost Peter Conn urged all interested graduate students to vote.

“If you are unsure whether you are eligible to vote on February 26-27, I urge you to do so,” Conn stated in the memo. “The election will affect the educational experience of all graduate students, in and outside of the bargaining unit at this time, and will govern the lives of many more in the future.”

Kempner derided this action, calling it “a public relations tactic” aimed to foster challenge votes, which the university could later use to discredit the union’s legitimacy.

Doyle responded, “That’s ridiculous. … Many students were confused about their eligibility, and we thought it would be best to err on the side of voting.”

In the coming days and months, as Penn awaits a ruling from the NLRB, both sides intend to pursue business as usual. GET-UP plans to organize its members and identify student concerns in preparation for anticipated negotiations, while Penn will focus on its core mission of recruiting graduate students to take advantage of its educational resources.

Archived article by Michael Dickstein