Myths About Unionization

Myth #1: If I vote No, I don’t have to pay union dues.

Sadly false. If the union wins, everyone within the bargaining unit will have to pay dues that could be as much as $700 per year. If a student takes five years to graduate, he or she could end up paying $3500 in just union fees.

Myth #2: GET-UP will increase our stipends.

Stipend levels vary dramatically across programs and schools, and typically reflect the amount stipulated through grants received through the NIH, NSF, or other funding agencies. Stipend levels are often set years in advance and reflect the amount of students predicted to enter the program. If stipend levels are increased beyond the means for which the program can afford, less students will be admitted, which will decrease the opportunities for future classes.

Stipends have generally increased at a rate of 2% per year over the past decade. If GET-UP unionization’s efforts succeed, they would need to negotiate an unprecedented 4% annual pay increase in order to cover their 2% union dues and to even match what was the historical pay rate increase. For example, the NYU graduate school union negotiated a 2.25-2.5% annual pay increase, which barely covers their 2% union fee, leaving the students with a paltry 0.25-0.5% net pay increase per year.

Edit 3/26/17: We recently stated that unionization would lead to a nearly $5000 deficit over the course of five years. Our calculations were wrong and we regret and apologize for providing incorrect information. The projected net difference over five years should be $985, not $5000.

Stipends at Penn have increased at a rate between 2-3% per year (depending on the program/school). For example, the stipend given to Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) students has increased at an average rate of 1.91% per year. The lack of a stipend increase between 2013-2015 was due to the government sequester, which shrank the NIH by roughly 3%.

BGS stipend

Myth #3: Penn has a $10 billion endowment, so they can afford to pay us more.

The University of Pennsylvania has one of the largest endowments in the US; however, the amount is often misleading. Endowments are comprised of investments, grants, or donations that are often given for an express purpose and contain stipulations for their use. In addition, Penn has many other needs and causes, such as funding community schools, providing free tuition to disadvantaged students, and investing in new facilities, among others. While graduate student funding is important, funds are inherently limited, especially with so many other worthy causes and needs. Click here for an in-depth analysis of Penn’s endowment.

Myth #4: GET-UP will not be influenced by their outside partner unions: AFT and the AFL-CIO.

GET-UP is partnering with two large unions: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). These large unions represent diverse interests, which might conflict with our needs as graduate students. Other large unions have also been willing to interfere and override local graduate student unions. For example, United Auto Workers (UAW), the union that the NYU student union partnered with, recently invalidated one of NYU’s graduate school union elections. The UAW also fought against NYU’s local bylaws and budget. There is nothing to prevent AFT and AFL-CIO from interfering with GET-UP when our needs as graduate students conflict with the goals and interests of the larger unions.

Myth #5: A study showed that unionization improves graduate students’ relationships with their mentors.

GET-UP and other student unions like to reference this study by Rogers et. al. While the study claims that unionization has a positive benefit on graduate students’ relationships with their mentors, the paper’s conclusions are overblown. First, the authors only interviewed a total of 400 students from five programs (Business, Computer Science, English, History, and Psychology). Secondly, the study was conducted at public universities that are subject to different union laws than a private university like Penn. Most importantly, there were only 5 out of 29 questions (such as “My advisor is a role model for me” scored on a scale from 1 to 5) that showed statistical significance at p ≤ 0.05. The differences between the union and non-union answers were very minor (average difference on a 1 to 5 scale being 0.206). The study also showed that the difference in stipends did not differ once other factors were taken into account. A similar organization to ours at Duke provides a detailed analysis.

Very little research has been done on the effect of unionization of graduate students, and more research is definitely needed before any conclusions are made.