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Penn grad students ratchet up the union fight

Students opposing the union drive had asked Wally Zimolong to aid them. On Saturday, they severed their ties with him. Welcome to the world of union elections, where it doesn't take long for civility to erode, even among earnest, latte-drinking doctoral students at one the nation's most prestigious Ivy League institutions.

University of Pennsylvania graduate students opposed to a drive to unionize them on campus had secured the services of Wally Zimolong, a Philadelphia-area lawyer who represents people and companies in disputes with unions.
University of Pennsylvania graduate students opposed to a drive to unionize them on campus had secured the services of Wally Zimolong, a Philadelphia-area lawyer who represents people and companies in disputes with unions.Read moreJane M. Von Bergen

University of Pennsylvania graduate students opposed to a union drive on campus had lawyered up. But they didn't pick just any lawyer.

They chose Wally Zimolong, the Philadelphia lawyer behind a successful drive to get National Labor Relations Board regional director Dennis Walsh suspended for a month in 2015 over allegations of appearing biased because he raised money for a scholarship fund for law students interning with pro-union law firms, unions, or worker-advocacy groups.

They picked a lawyer who tweeted about the NLRB in April: "When is the @realDonaldTrump going to dismantle this whacko leftist agency?"

Plus, the union foes said on their website, they got Zimolong's help for free, because the Center for Independent Employees "has agreed to pay for his legal fees." CIE says it aids people "opposed to union oppression in their workplace." It receives funding from a Koch brothers affiliate, according to Sourcewatch, run by the Center for Media and Democracy.

But, on Saturday, six days after they chose Zimolong, they severed their ties to him. "It really became clear that Wally's personal beliefs do not match ours," Ian Henrich, one of the leaders of the group, No Penn Union, wrote in an email.

As NLRB hearings resume in Philadelphia on Monday over whether the grad students — who teach, assist in laboratories, and perform research — have properly formed a group for a union election, students who don't want a union had said they needed legal help to keep pro-union forces from "continuing to harass" them, as they said on their website.

"During our campaign, it was becoming increasingly clear that we simply did not have the experience and knowledge about the intricacies of labor law," the group's website said. The group reached out to labor lawyers, but only Zimolong, with his background in legal matters involving the NLRB, was willing to help. "During our initial meeting, he was polite and professional, and agreed to provide us with legal advice when we needed it."

"We apologize to our fellow students," the website said. "In our rush to better understand labor law, we did not fully investigate all aspects of our new partner," the website said.

The pro-union group had said that their grad student colleagues were being hijacked by a lawyer with a right-wing agenda.

Welcome to the world of union elections, where it doesn't take long for civility to erode, even among earnest, latte-drinking doctoral students at a prestigious Ivy League institution.

No Penn Union says GET-UP, the graduate students' group that affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, improperly used the university's student directory to contact people about the union. GET-UP, it says, gave students who wanted to withdraw a hard time, and deliberately did not include engineering and Wharton School grad students in the NLRB election petition because more of them opposed the union.

GET-UP is "promising things that are beyond the capacity of a union," said Scott Dooley, a doctoral student doing research in gene therapy as part of the Biomedical Graduate Studies research program. "They are pandering to us. It's not realistic."

The GET-UP people deny all harassment and say they have support in every school.

Zimolong "sees this as a battle in a national campaign to get rid of unions and the NLRB," said Salar Mohandesi, one of the original organizers of the GET-UP drive. Mohandesi graduated from Penn in May with a Ph.D. in European history. He could not be reached Saturday afternoon to comment on Zimolong's departure.

In an email, university spokesman Ron Ozio said: "We are unaware of and uninvolved with any such development."

Henrich, a graduate student researching cancer, had said in an interview Thursday that No Penn Union would not allow itself to be used as propaganda. "If they try to feature us in a news conference, like `Look at these poor grad students being bullied by the union,' that won't happen."

In an interview Friday, Zimolong said he took the case pro bono, without financial help from the Center for Independent Employees, because "I believe in the little guy." He said he didn't know why the students had said the CIE was paying him, noting that the CIE is a "group I can rely on for advice and counsel."

Zimolong said unions want grad students because their traditional membership base has eroded. "These union bosses are the fat cats, who want more union dues to finance their political agenda," he said. As for Penn's students, "I want to make sure they aren't being bullied by the union."

Given labor laws, the No Penn Union members enrolled in the Biomedical Graduate Studies program are in a complex spot: They can't turn to the American Federation of Teachers, which is helping GET-UP, because they disagree with the union's tactics. And, because they are part of the schools GET-UP included in its election petition, they can't seek assistance from the university, which would risk an unfair labor practice if it interfered with the students enrolled in schools GET-UP included in the proposed bargaining unit.

Zimolong had been contacted by one of their members, Henrich  and Zimolong said.

Henrich and Dooley said they aren't opposed to unions, but they didn't like how GET-UP included their biomedical program among pro-union students petitioning the NLRB. They don't need a union, they say.

"I don't care if another school wants to unionize," Henrich said. "I don't know their situations, so I don't have a right to say. But we should have a choice."