Issues Facing Graduate Students: How do we solve these problems now? How can we improve?

What is the best way to provide adequate and timely solutions for issues that graduate students face?

Currently, each graduate student has autonomy over their own educational and research experience. We serve as our own advocates every day, and the “bargaining power” lies within each individual student. Each PhD experience is unique. It depends on a variety of parameters including department, area of study, advisor, intellectual support, and emotional support. Graduate students face issues that differ between individual students, departments, and schools. Unionization would mean that a collective bargaining unit will be formed which will act on behalf of all “graduate student employees.” How can this unit guarantee that it will benefit everyone’s interests? Even if the unit is democratic and votes on what goes into a contract, how will they ensure the voices in smaller departments are heard?

Here’s the big question we are facing: Is unionization the best way to address and solve problems facing graduate students today and in the future? We’re not convinced.  More thoughts on existing infrastructure is presented here by no penn union.

Why a union might not be the best option for us at Penn:

  • Dues
    • The unionization effort at Penn has chosen to partner with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is an affiliate of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL – CIO). According to AFT Pennsylvania’s Constitution and By-Laws, the minimum annual local dues applying to each professional member shall be no less than 1% of salary. Even though the local will be able to democratically vote on dues, the minimum each worker will pay is 1% of salary. Also, only a portion of dues stays with the local, while the rest is siphoned for the AFT and AFL-CIO.
  • Lack of history and data to show success at similar private universities (Comparing our current benefits to those in the NYU contract, our benefits are already far superior.)
  • Mismanagement
  • Issues might not be addressed in “real-time”

We understand that the NRLB dictates rules under which an election can take place. The NRLB dictates that interference with employee free choice in an election is prohibited. Therefore, union advocates cannot make promises such as increasing stipends, guaranteeing better healthcare, or other benefits that would undoubtedly influence the vote.

Instead of voting to establish a collective bargaining unit that cannot guarantee things will be any better than they are currently, how can we work with new or existing channels and resources here at Penn to come to reasonable solutions for our issues?

We recognize the unique opportunity that efforts to unionize have provided to discuss these existing issues, and the requirement for more permanent solutions.  The following list is in no manner complete, but may it start as a starting point. We encourage students from both sides of aisle to please send items to add to this list as these issues, as they are important and must be discussed and adequately resolved.

Issues Facing Graduate Students

  • Grievances
    • The grievance process must be a safe process for the victims. This process must also be uniform across all schools in order to protect students regardless of their graduate affiliations. A process must be put in place that is well advertised, simplistic, aims to protect the victim and put their safety first and foremost.
    • The existing infrastructure to handle especially delicate conflict is the office of the Ombudsman (, where this office is ‘dedicated to members of the Penn community who are experiencing difficulty, conflict, or confusion in his or her work, studies, or life at the University more broadly’.
    • Is a union the best way to address these sensitive issues? Can we come to a solution in-house, without involving external moderators? Let’s talk with with administrators, CAPS and the Graduate Student Center to discuss better channels to address sexual harassment and abuse.
  • Sexual Harassment
    • Its imperative that graduate students (and all students) be safe from relationship violence, stalking, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, in any context in the university. In some cases if the perpetrator is in a position of power it is important that there are resources that protect the victim.
    • Existing Resources at Penn: Confidential Support Resources (information shared with them generally will be held in confidence, unless the person sharing the information gives their consent to the disclosure of that information):
      • Special Services, Division of Public Safety (DPS) 215-898-6600
      • Penn Women’s Center (PWC) 215-898-8611
      • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) 215-898-7021
      • Student Health Service (SHS) 215-746-3535
      • Reporting Options:
        • Office of the sexual violence investigative officer 215-898-2887
        • Office of student conduct 215-898-5651
        • Office of affirmative action and equal opportunity programs 215-898-6993
        • Title IX coordinator 215-898-6993
  • Health insurance tied to academic status
    • We recently heard stories of graduate students needing to take a medical leave of absence. However, since they were no longer a full-time student, their health insurance stopped and they were not able to pay or obtain adequate treatment for their health issue. This contrary system doesn’t work for us.
    • Is a union the best way to address this significant issue? Will the collective bargaining unit serve as better advocates for our health than the SHS Student Health Advisory Board and the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee? (Note: Students have access to SHS regardless of insurance)
  • Departmental transparency
    • The expectations and requirements to complete a degree should be 100% transparent and clear from the moment you receive your offer letter. Currently, some departments do this really well by having a structured “PhD Handbook” which clearly lays out the path and timeline to obtaining a degree. However, we were concerned to find that some department chairs have unilateral control over degree requirements. If the department chair changes, they could also completely change the degree requirements making it necessary to take or teach more classes.
    • Here are some models of successful graduate student handbooks which detail rights, expectations, and requirements.
  • Renewal of Visas:
    • International students have trouble renewing visas without having funding evidence for the following year.  This is a valid concern.  Current private institution union contracts have failed to address this issue.
  • Worker’s compensation
    • As we understand, there is currently no procedure for workers compensation if injured in the laboratory. Laboratories go through routine audits and inspections by EHRS, so that graduate students can complete their work as safely as possible. However, accidents happen and the university should establish a policy to protect graduate students.

Resolutions: Thoughts on Autonomous Permanent Fixtures for Representing Graduate Interests

The following is by no means binding, It’s Just an Idea, how requests could be met in the absence of a union, hence a starting point for discussion:

We believe a Penn based institution (possibly existing and needing this adjustment), can be given sufficient autonomy to represent the interests of graduate students. Also in these solutions, it is important that the solution be more robust to oscillatory student activism and work as intended regardless of the level of student involvement.  In all of these examples redundancy with existing infrastructure would be minimized to meet the specific needs of graduate students and fully leverage all the existing facilities. 

1. Strengthen Existing Infrastructure (e.g. GAPSA) or Elected Graduate Advocate

The autonomy and operation of GAPSA would be extended. To help with student oscillating involvement a professional would be elected by graduate students and hired. This individual would specialize in handling grievances and has specified autonomy. This professional could come either from inside or outside the Penn Community.

2. A Hypothetical Solution Under Investigation: development of the Graduate Advocacy Center (GAC)

This would be an autonomous center, completely internal to Penn governed by graduate student activism: the best parts of a union, while remaining internal, costing next to nothing, working closely with faculty and administration. This center would be molded to meet our exact needs and work to bring the community together and increase the quality of life for all Penn graduates.  We should have an amicable conversation with both students and administration and figure out the details together.