Graduate students march toward union formation

PSU graduate students are exercising their right to unionize: no longer will graduate employees be sequestered by mountains of term papers or remote research laboratories.

A group of graduate students and supporters gathered at the PSU Urban Center at noon on Monday. Following a brief introduction and photo-op, the group silently marched to the office of PSU President Wim Wiewel, where they presented their intentions to unionize.

“We’re requesting that administrators remain neutral throughout the unionization process,” said Ted Cooper, a graduate research assistant in Computer Science.

Cooper acted as one of the media spokespeople at Monday’s event, along with Jane Carr, a graduate teaching assistant in the Hatfield School of Government.

“”We’ve been organizing for years,” Carr said. “Building a network with representatives in nearly every department.”

The self-designated Graduate Employees Union hopes to secure better working conditions for graduate employees. According to Cooper, priority items for the group include more affordable healthcare and higher wages. The group has collected hundreds of signed mission statements from students, but hopes to increase its reach with their public proclamation.

“That is definitely one of the goals of today,” Cooper said. “Getting to everyone has been hard.”

According to a statement released by University Communications, PSU has 807 total graduate assistants: 479 graduate teaching assistants, 272 graduate research assistants and 56 graduate administrative assistants.

These positions range from 0.15 full time equivalents to 0.49 FTE; all are eligible for tuition remission assistance. PSU budgeted $8.4 million for tuition remission for graduate assistants in the 2016-17 fiscal year. In addition, graduate assistants receive hourly pay determined by position, graduate status and hours worked.

“We recognize that [graduate students] have a right to organize,” said the emailed statement from University Communications. “[The] university administration must remain neutral on this issue under the law. As such, we are not in a position to address specific concerns about pay and benefits of graduate assistants at this time.”

Monday’s march was just the beginning of the unionization process for GEU. Now that they have announced their intentions to administrators, the group hopes to grow their numbers and support in order to accomplish their goals.

“Graduate employees are a vital part of what makes the university run,” Cooper said. “We’re asking for the things we need to do our jobs well.”