Graduate workers at the University of Pennsylvania have had enough, and they’re making their voices heard through a historic union drive. Across all of the university’s schools, workers have signed over 2,700 union cards, according to graduate worker Jonathan Nadraws. The Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) held a rally in front of Van Pelt library on Oct. 4, drawing hundreds of graduate workers and supporters.
Speakers included GET-UP members and rally hosts Nadraws, Hilah Kohen, Julia Flores and Sam Layding, Dan Vicente, director of United Auto Workers. Region 9, formerly a Local 644 official, and Kendra Brooks, the first Working Families Party representative elected to Philadelphia City Council. The rally was held in advance of the union petition filing on Oct. 6.
Nadraws described the rally as a “moment of celebration,” but emphasized that the struggle is nowhere near over. Kohen informed the crowd that the resident advisers had won their union election just the week before, and UPenn responded by challenging it with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that resident advisers “aren’t workers.” (These workers would affiliate with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 153.)
Kohen added, “We are educators. We are researchers. We are workers, and Penn needs our labor to function!” She continued: “Penn could not function without the labor of thousands and thousands more workers,” before listing the numerous groups of workers at the school, including housekeeping staff and lecturers, amid shouts of agreement from the crowd.
Penn bosses’ abuses of power
Throughout the rally, speakers listed numerous abuses of power committed by UPenn bosses all the way up to the top. Kohen emphasized, “When it comes to our most basic needs as workers — housing, pay, our health — it shouldn’t be at the whim of anybody else.”
Julia Flores, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Cell and Molecular Biology, addressed the toxic and abusive labs that UPenn fosters: “Every single one of us knows someone who works in a toxic lab, or maybe you’re even in one yourself.” She addressed the “Principal Investigators with unreasonable expectations around productivity that would necessitate us putting in long hours,” pointing out how many graduate workers lose authorship on papers and ownership of projects as a result.
Flores emphasized UPenn’s lack of transparency for solving issues of abuse and how just “finding another lab” necessitates student workers restarting their Ph.D.s practically from scratch. The union, she implored, would give graduate workers a way to demand “transparency around instances of abuse,” reminding the graduate workers present of the financial exploitation necessary under capitalism, in which UPenn bosses engage in no small amount.
In conclusion, Flores stated: “Penn charges tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for every single one of us, even when we’re teaching classes. The only way to stop the theft of graduate worker’s labor is workers standing side by side. We deserve better, and the only way that Penn will give it to us is if we continue to stand together and demand it.”
Working-class solidarity key
Sam Layding, a fourth-year student in the School of Engineering, reminded participants that workers’ solidarity is an essential ingredient in any labor struggle. They also addressed concerns graduate workers might have around their relationships with their bosses and advisers.
Layding emphasized: “Many of us are a single missed pay stub or medical emergency away from total financial disaster,” and pointed out “those of us who deal with chronic illness; those of us who have to worry about maintaining our visa status; and those of us who are parents.”
After listing many different situations among graduate workers which are ignored by the university, Layding added, “A union gives us a chance to ask the university together for what we need and from a position that is meaningful and has real power.”
Layding also made it clear that Penn added nearly $10,000 to the minimum graduate stipend it provides in reaction to hearing about the start of unionization efforts – and again emphasized that collective bargaining would bring workers so much more.
This speech ended with Layding asking the crowd, “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” The chorus of affirmation that rang out in response allowed the solidarity among graduate workers to come through loud and clear.
Who has the power? Workers together!
Vicente and Brooks showed in their own way that Philadelphia is, in fact, a union town. Vicente focused his brief yet animated remarks on the power that comes when workers fight together. He began by stating, “Power’s never gonna be given to you. You have to take it!”
Vicente then focused on the class struggle as a whole, emphasizing that UPenn and other bourgeois institutions “continue to reap billions and billions of dollars off of the work that we do.” The solution? “We have to put our feet in the ground now and stick it to these corporate bastards.” He emphasized the need for solidarity and internationalism, saying, “The fight here in the U.S. for working class people is a fight for all international working people across this world.”
Brooks acknowledged and celebrated the recent push of labor actions across the U.S. and identified the UPenn graduate worker struggle as having an “important role to play.” She spoke about the university’s role as ”the largest employer in the city of Philadelphia,” and told graduate workers, “You are standing up for all UPenn workers, all academic workers and all working families here in Philadelphia.”
Brooks also discussed economic exploitation, mocking the idea of UPenn’s economic “growth” of over $20 billion off of the backs of workers’ labor: “Growth for who? Economic growth isn’t worth anything if it does not go into the pockets of the people who are not rich.” She spoke about former UPenn presidents walking away with millions of dollars, while the university administration wrings its hands and offers practically nothing to graduate workers. She made a point that graduate workers must use the power they have as workers to win fair treatment.
A special delivery
At the end of the rally, the energized crowd, heads held high with pride in collective power, marched to the office of President Liz Magill. They carried a letter signed by 475 graduate workers demanding that university officials not interfere with the workers’ democratic rights to unionize and collectively bargain.
This came one week after the administration’s attempt to shut down the resident advisers’ union – which the NLRB blocked, telling UPenn officials that there was no legal basis for their complaint. The reminder that workers know their rights and will continue to hold their power served as a preemptive telling-off of the university’s nefarious union busting.
University security only allowed 14 GET-UP members and supporters into the building, but President Magill was nowhere to be found. They handed their letter to a Provost office secretary. Now that UPenn officials realize that they can’t win this fight against the supermajorities of graduate workers, they are trying to hide behind their own cowardice.
There’s no escape for UPenn bosses from the collective labor power coming their way. Graduate workers know their own worth together – and no amount of attacks can or will take that away from them!