Our campaign slides on the television screens of the 4th, 5th and 6th floors of Biomedical Research Building (BRB) were taken down after the American Federation of Teachers used a show of force to silence our student-led opposition to unionization. We find this deeply disturbing and want their tactics to be known publicly.
In spring of 2017, we received permission from a BGS-appointed professor (not an administrator) to use the television screens in BRB to post our slides on a limited number of TVs (BRB floors 4-6). These TVs are typically used by student groups to advertise events and information, and are open to any student. Within a week of our slides airing, a BGS coordinator informed us that an employee from the AFT had repeatedly called her, demanding to know who approved the slides. He threatened legal action, claiming there could be a violation of labor laws. The AFT employee was probably referring to NLRB laws that prevent an employer from interfering with unionization efforts. While AFT could threaten legal action if they believed the slides were made by Penn, they did not ask who made the slides nor did they ask for equal access to the screens for GET-UP’s campaign. As far as we know, GET-UP has never been denied use of the televisions on floors 4-6 of BRB. The AFT just wanted our slides removed and now, our slides are no longer being displayed. Unlike GET-UP, we are student-funded and cost-effective campaigning is critical. We can not afford to keep replacing posters that are torn down and/or defaced.
Silencing dissent has recently become a common tactic. Students who post questions or concerns have been answered with ad hominem attacks and often their posts are simply hidden or deleted. We have been called names ranging from university shills to some that are not fit to print. Our flyers have been repeatedly thrown away or vandalized. Now, our publicly posted slides have been removed after intimidation of a faculty member. Penn’s graduate student community represents a healthy diversity of moral, ethical and political beliefs. In fact, engaging in ideological discourse is the quintessence of our purpose as academics, irrespective of the department conferring our degrees. Given the move to suppress our voices, it is clear that any AFT-affiliated union is not only antithetical to our educational goals but will also harm the freedoms of speech and thought we are privileged to have as students at Penn. While the recent NLRB ruling asserts that graduate students are employees, it should not cast aside the fact that our primary purpose is to learn. AFT will not hesitate to use legal threat to assert itself, and it is not appropriate in an environment where we pursue our doctoral degrees.
We have articulated our top 5 concerns about a pan-graduate school union, including the lack of transparency about GET-UP’s involvement with AFT. This incident only reinforces our concerns. If an AFT-affiliated union wins recognition on campus, how will it treat students who vocalize concerns or have critiques of their operations? Will they also be silenced with legal threat? Or simply censored? To answer this question, we encourage you to read more about the Rank and File Democracy Caucus, a group of students within the Cornell Graduate Student Union that have recently published a criticism of their affiliation with AFT: cgsurankandfile.org. It seems that AFT not only silences opposition but also actively ignores the wishes of the very students it claims to support.