Frequently Asked Questions

The Situation:

The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) voted under the Bush administration in 2004 in “Brown 2004” that graduate students could not be considered as workers but are students, (Here is a detailed analysis). The NLRB voted 3-1 on August 23, 2016 to overturn the Brown Decision. Currently there are two open positions on this board which must be filled during this administration, this presents a sense of urgency to those in favor of unionization to quickly develop one before it possibly becomes a temporary impossibility. The development of a union has been advocated on Penn campus by the group GET-UP. The students in support of a union at Penn submitted an open letter to Amy Gutmann  stating that any action or involvement from the university would be considered harassment and would be treated as such before this vote takes place.  The AFT Pennsylvania is the representation the union supporting students have sought. The current strategy is to have the entire graduate student body vote on a single question “Should a graduate union be formed at Penn? (yes/no)”.  An opposing platform NoPennUnion was then formed. The Daily Pennsylvanian then wrote an article on these proceedings.  Why is this polarizing? Because there are some students who feel their interest cannot be represented by a union, or that there are other options to pursue before forming a permanent union; but union supporters feel that this is the only way to affect change. The administration at Penn is unable to provide any support or advise students who do not wish to join the union at this time, however the provost office released this. It is imperative that all graduate students vote (if you think your vote doesn’t matter, please know that it does and that taking that step is easier than you think).  We here at GETDN, recognize the concerns raised by union supporters, and want to see resolution. However we don’t believe it is a wise decision to form a union, where very few examples (all negotiations of formation and implementation are finished) exist where the university recognizes and works with unionized graduate students, and all financial and other issues across all involved departments have been resolved to adequate satisfaction to all parties involved (we invite you to do your own research with these questions in mind). We realize that those with no voice are graduates who are busy, not trained in law, some frightened, and frankly unprepared for this sudden development. We seek to be that voice for the students seeking autonomy from this bargaining unit in this uncertain time and ensure that democracy, true democracy occurs here on our great campus. Thank you for your support.  For additional information, check out the GSEG hosted unionization info session on this tab.


Question:  Why have administrators and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania remained silent on unionization?

Answer:   Students organizing the union have sent an open letter asking for the administration to not interfere in the unionization process.   See the letter here:

Question: Is GET-UP definitely the group to represent us if we vote yes?

Answer: NO!! The employer and union (AFT not GET-UP) are required to meet.  GET-UP is an organizing agent, not the recognized union.  AFT would be the recognized union.  AFT may ask for suggestions or ideas fro GET-UP, but ultimately, the bargaining, negotiations, and spending of dues are in the hands of AFT and AFT graduate student representatives (once AFT is the union, some of these students can be paid by AFT).

Question:  What has AFT (American Federation of Teachers) done with union dues?

Answer: Dues paid by students can be used for AFT contributions to PAC (Political Action Groups), which in turn fuel political campaigns.  Here is a link that shows how this funding was hidden in annual reports.  This is AFT (the one Penn would get) specific and not a statement on every union organization.

Question:  Do any AFT members ever want to leave the union?

Answer: Yes, read about teachers across America trying to leave the AFT.

Question: Does every department have to participate in the graduate union?

Answer:  Yes and No.  Yes, if the vote for the union is not conducted on a department by department basis then all departments at the University of Pennsylvania will  be included in the Union.  If the ballot includes a department by department unionization option, then yes, there can be varying union inclusion between departments.  The students at Yale voted on a department by department basis.  Currently, there has been no indication that voting as separate departments or separate types of graduate employees will be the union model employed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Question: Wait! I want Dental insurance for free?!!

Answer: Penn dental insurance is $400 a year currently, although it will be only $200 beginning Fall 2017.  Assuming the $400 rate, over five years you would pay $2000 for dental.   If dues are 2% though, you could pay ($480-$720) per year (or $2400-$3600 over 5 years).  Basically, you will lose between $400-$1600 estimated over 5 years.

Question: How quickly can the union collective bargaining process work?

Answer: Negotiations can be a very length process.  Below is the NLRB process outline:

“After employees choose a union as a bargaining representative, the employer and union are required to meet at reasonable times to bargain in good faith about wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices and other mandatory subjects

It is an unfair labor practice for either party to refuse to bargain collectively with the other, but parties are not compelled to reach agreement or make concessions.If after sufficient good faith efforts, no agreement can be reached, the employer may declare impasse, and then implement the last offer presented to the union

If after sufficient good faith efforts, no agreement can be reached, the employer may declare impasse, and then implement the last offer presented to the union. However, the union may disagree that true impasse has been reached and file a charge of an unfair labor practice for failure to bargain in good faith. The NLRB will determine whether true impasse was reached based on the history of negotiations and the understandings of both parties.

If the Agency finds that impasse was not reached, the employer will be asked to return to the bargaining table. In an extreme case, the NLRB may seek a federal court order to force the employer to bargain.”

Question:  If the negotiations aren’t complete and are taking a while, do I still pay dues?

Answer: Yes.  You pay dues even when you are not covered by an accepted contract.

Question: Is the negotiation process objective or subjective?

Answer: The process is subjective.  The negotiations must be done, as stated above, in “good faith.”  Good faith can vary from party to party.

Question:  Can Penn mandate I join the union and pay dues?

Answer: Yes.  The “union-security” agreement could cause Penn to mandate joining and paying dues within 30 days of being hired.

Question:  Can I be exempt from the union?

Answer: ONLY if you have a valid religious exemption.  However, you must pay the equivalent of dues to a “nonreligious charitable organization.”

Question:  Can TAs be in the union and RAs not be in the union within the same department?

Answer:  This can only be done if the vote or ballot is designed for this separation.  The NYU graduate student union does exactly this.  For example, Engineering TAs can be in the union, while Engineering RAs are not in the union.

Question: Can supporters of the union make promises about the future contract while gaining supporters?

Answer: No.  No promises can be made because the contract does not exist and is not negotiated yet.

“Union may make promises, but it cannot guarantee anything.” – [Graduate School of Arts and Sciences] Student Unionization Guide for Discussion. Harvard.

Question:  Is there an alternate teacher’s union other than AFT?

Answer: Yes.  The American Association of Teachers.

Question: How can faculty, staff, and administrators discuss unionization with students?

Answer: Faculty, staff, and administrators cannot threaten, interrogate, intimidate, make promises, or spy on graduate employees and union supporters.

Question: Could the union have ownership or claim intellectual property of your research?

Answer: The union would have to consider intellectual property and copyright in their bargaining negotiations.  This means these things may be addressed, but cannot be guaranteed prior to a contract.  The AFT has published content on this, and thus, demonstrates a vehicle for this discussion.  Currently, the University of Pennsylvania policies on intellectual property can be found below.

AFT on intellectual property:

Penn on intellectual Property:

Question:  Will voter eligibility be tied to domestic or international student status?

Answer: No, voter eligibility is not linked to citizenship or visa status.

Question: If I feel that the union has done something unethical or illegal, what can I do in response?

Answer:  You can contact the regional NLRB office to file a complaint.

Phone: (215) 597-7601

You will need to fill out a form and submit it to their office. (

Question: What is our solution?

Answer: GAC, and improving existing infrastructure by establishing a dialogue with Penn

Question: If I signed a card in support of the union, am I bound to vote yes on the ballot?

Answer: No, you have the freedom to vote as you see fit at the time of the election.

Question: What percentage of votes are needed for the union to pass?

Answer: If 30% of graduate students are in support of unionizing then a vote will be held where if 50% of the total votes casted are needed for the union to pass.  Eligible voters who do not vote are not counted in the election.

From the GET-UP website: “GET-UP would need to file a total number of authorization cards equal to or greater than 30% of the proposed bargaining unit in order to trigger an election.”

Question: How does the health care budget for spouses and dependents and for student dental compare to the benefits in the NYU collective bargaining agreement?


Penn beginning in fall 2017 will implement the following:

Dependent Health Insurance and Child Care:  “Penn will commit $1M in annual funding for need-based grants to PhD students in good standing to help defray the costs of extended health insurance, as well as dependent insurance and daycare for PhDs with spouses and children. “

Dental: “University will subsidize 50% of the cost of Penn Dental insurance for all full-time PhD students as part of their funding packages, which also include scholarship, stipend, and health insurance.”

Source: email from  Vincent Price, Provost and Beth A. Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education

NYU collective bargaining:

Dependent Health Insurance:  “Effective September 1, 2015, the University shall establish a Graduate Employee Student Health Insurance Dependant Premium Support Plan. The Plan will be funded as follows: Academic Year 2015-2016 – $150,000.00 Academic Year 2016 – 2017 – $175,000.00 Academic Year 2017 – 2018 and thereafter – $200,000.00”

Dental: “Effective September 1, 2015, graduate employees will be covered by the Stu-Dent Plan for NYU students at no cost.”



These are questions we have about a possible contract, and we understand these things would be negotiated, but these we believe are important issues. Open questions we have about unionization at Penn:

  • Could the union have ownership or claim intellectual property of your research?
  • In general, unions have a political climate; whereas academia should be free from political influence.  How can we be sure, that graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania can remain free of that political climate?
  • Considering the timeline for implementation at NYU, Yale, even Columbia, how long could we expect the process to take?
  • Could the union force us to strike or work only contract hours?
  • The percentage of salary that will determine dues varies between locals.  What are the ranges of dues that could possibly be charged?
  • How will the contract simultaneously include the needs of both masters and doctorate students?
  • Can a student hold an external internship while remaining in the union?
  • Is the AFT the only option as a collective bargaining representative?

What are some current models of inclusion in graduate unions or graduate union organizing in private institutions?


Yale graduate students voted to unionize on an individual departmental basis in February 2017.  Read more below here:


“Included: All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders): All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and All Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis facilities.”

Columbia graduate students voted “yes” on unionizing.  The vote was 1602 “yes” to 623 “no.”  Currently, the Columbia administration is appealing the NLRB decisions.  See more here:

New York University:

Not every graduate employee is in the NYU graduate union contract.

Who is in included in the Union contract?:

  • “Graduate students (Master’s Ph.D) who teach (TA/adjunct positions)
  • Ph.D. Research assistants (with some exceptions, Article XVIID)
  • Graduate assistants
  • Course assistants
  • Graduate students holding a range of miscellaneous positions, who are employed by NYU”

Who is not included in the Union contract?:

  • “Graders/Tutors.
  • Graduate assistants at the School of Medicine.
  • Candidates for the Master of Business Administration degree at Stern.
  • Research assistants at Polytechnic Institute.
  • Research assistants in the Biology, Chemistry, Neural Science, Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science and GSAS Psychology departments.
  • Guards and supervisors as defined in the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Graduate employee adjuncts enrolled in Ph.D. programs beyond the 7th year.”