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As union-forming efforts proliferate at Penn, university workers say organizing ‘isn’t going to stop’

With multiple unions trying to form at one time, campus workers are optimistic that they’ll change the tide for organizing at Penn.

Raghu Arghal, a Ph.D. student at University of Pennsylvania, spoke to fellow student workers at a GET-UP rally on April 26 about why he wants to form a union.
Raghu Arghal, a Ph.D. student at University of Pennsylvania, spoke to fellow student workers at a GET-UP rally on April 26 about why he wants to form a union.Read moreLizzy McLellan Ravitch

Several hundred people gathered near the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library last week, many carrying posters emblazoned with the United Auto Workers logo and personalized with slogans about their worker grievances.

Student workers took turns talking into a microphone, describing their frustration over long hours, low pay, and lack of resources for international students. Onlookers shouted labor chants in unison between each testimonial.

As the event wrapped up, emcee Clancy Murray instructed student workers in attendance to pull out their phones, find the union card form online and send it to all the grad workers they know.

“We didn’t get to this point by standing around and cheering. We got to this point because we spent actually thousands of hours organizing,” said Murray, a political science Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at Penn. “That isn’t going to stop today because as I said earlier, it’s just the beginning.”

The rally was held by GET-UP, a group of Penn doctoral, masters and undergraduate student workers aiming to unionize. GET-UP organizers said more than 1,900 student workers have signed union authorization cards so far, and the total proposed membership would be more than 4,000.

If they’re successful, the GET-UP organizers will have created the largest union to take shape this year at Penn, which employs more people in Philadelphia than any other business, but it may not be the only one. In the last two years, three other groups of Penn employees have pursued unionization.

More than 1,400 Penn Medicine residents and fellows are voting this week on whether to unionize. Another group of workers, roughly 200 resident assistants and graduate resident assistants, recently filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union.

Meanwhile, Penn Museum Workers United, which formed in 2021 to represent roughly 30 museum workers, continues to bargain for its first contract.

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), while not recognized as a labor union by university administration, has been publicly supporting the student workers as a “solidarity union.” Since AAUP affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers last year, its members now have more robust organizing resources at their disposal.

“Nothing could be more exciting or more needed than this union wave at Penn,” said Lu Denegre, a conservation technician at the Penn Museum, during the GET-UP rally. “Unions belong at Penn.”

Asked about these simultaneous organizing efforts, university spokesperson Ron Ozio said the university “is proud of its collaborative culture.”

“We believe that our graduate students’ interests are best served by our commitment to collaboration and sitting at the table together,” Ozio said in an email. “We encourage students to learn as much as they can about what unionization might mean for them.”

‘Give us a chance’

The “union wave” is not unique to Penn. New union formations and strikes by existing unions are popping up at schools across the country.

Solidarity from existing unions at nearby universities is helpful, but on-campus support from current students and faculty is more important, said William Herbert, executive director of Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. Generally, students have been showing up to lend that support, he said.

When Penn resident assistants filed their petition to unionize with OPEIU Local 153, they asked students to call on university administration not to run an antiunion campaign, and nearly 1,000 students have done so, according to the union’s letter-writing webpage. The AAUP and other faculty have also publicly expressed support.

A majority of university administrations engage in antiunion activities, said John Castella, business agent with United Service Workers Union and labor studies lecturer at Rutgers University. But, he noted, antiunion actions can backfire by fueling organizers’ motivation.

“The more Penn resists, the more momentum is going to move this forward,” Castella said.

Several established unions at Penn represent campus workers such as tradespeople, housekeepers, library workers, and police. Ozio said these relationships have been “productive” and that university leaders have encouraged students to vote in union elections.

Penn Medicine residents, who started their union election Wednesday, have been getting emails and texts to their personal and work phones since March “about why unionizing is bad,” third-year resident Madison Sharp said. Signs around campus urged the physicians to “Give us a chance” and “Vote No.”

Denegre, of the Penn Museum union, said university management “ran an aggressive antiunion campaign” two years ago, mailing pamphlets and calling museum workers, urging them to vote against unionization.

“As an educational institution, we believe information and education is vital to the decisions made by individuals regarding their right to decide if they want to engage with a union if lawfully permitted to do so,” Ozio said.

Penn’s AAUP chapter cannot seek union recognition and bargaining power through the National Labor Relations Board, under federal labor law, because its membership includes tenured professors at a private university. The group could hold its own election, but university administration would not be required to recognize it, said Penn English professor David Kazanjian, the chapter’s communications secretary. The chapter has requested to meet with university president Liz Magill, but she declined, Kazanjian said.

So instead AAUP-Penn is focusing efforts on supporting other bargaining units at Penn, said Kazanjian. They’re collecting survey information about employee salaries so they can increase pay transparency, and regularly publishing facts about existing employee work conditions and labor organizing.

“Penn doesn’t give anything to its workers unless they’re embarrassed or pressured,” said Kazanjian, who has taught at Penn since 2005. “They have opposed and tried to undermine graduate student organizing for many years, just like many of the private universities have done.”

A new ‘era?’

This isn’t the first attempt at organizing a union for GET-UP, which was founded in 2000. Previous campaigns garnered support and organizers pursued recognition in 2003 and 2017, but were ultimately unsuccessful. The university “could have at any moment recognized a graduate-student union,” but it did not, Kazanjian said.

In 2016, the NLRB ruled that Columbia University grad student workers were allowed to unionize, but activity picked up more when President Joe Biden won the White House. Democrats now hold the majority of NLRB seats.

“If higher ed is ever thinking about organizing, now is the time to do it,” Castella said. Rutgers, where he teaches, was recently in the spotlight when the unions representing 9,000 university educators went on strike for the first time.

State Sen. Nikil Saval noted the Rutgers strike at GET-UP’s rally, as well as a strike by Temple University’s graduate student union earlier this year. He also pointed to recent organizing efforts by student workers at other large private universities, like Columbia and Stanford.

“The era in which trustees, presidents, and provosts were striding the world like colossuses is over,” said Saval, a democrat who represents that part of the city in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Student workers who shared testimonials at the rally spoke not only about personal struggles, and their general desire for a more democratically run workplace and educational system.

Electrical engineering Ph.D. student Raghu Arghal said the pain points student workers have faced for years are becoming stronger as increased cost of living and stagnated wages cause people to feel “stretched thinner than ever.”

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that a lot of us are standing up at the same time,” Arghal said.