Graduate Workers at UPenn Just Won a Union

Earlier this month, graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania successfully voted to form a union in a landslide victory. Jacobin spoke with worker-organizers about the organizing drive.

Huntsman Hall, home of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, on May 23, 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Sara Wexler

On May 3, graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania joined the growing ranks of unionized grad workers, with a landslide victory for the union in its National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Of over eighteen hundred students who cast ballots that have been counted, 95 percent voted to join the union, GETUP-UAW (United Auto Workers). (Four hundred ballots are being challenged by the university and have not yet been tallied.)

With the union victory at Penn, graduate students are now unionized at all the Ivy League universities except for Princeton; it also marks the creation of the largest private sector union in Philadelphia’s history. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler sat down with three GETUP-UAW worker-organizers to discuss the history of their union drive, how they built supermajority support across the university, and the significance of the win in the context of the broader upsurge in higher-ed organizing and the Palestine student encampment movement.

Sara Wexler

When did graduate student workers at Penn start organizing for a union?

Sam Schirvar

Graduate workers at Penn have tried several times to form a union over the past several decades, starting as early as the early 2000s, and once again around 2016–17, and in each of those prior iterations, they were obstructed by hostile federal labor administrations, which didn’t see the work that they were doing as real work and didn’t see graduate workers as in an employment relationship with the university, and [therefore argued that they were] not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

We decided to take on the name GETUP once again in solidarity with these previous iterations of unionization at Penn. This union campaign began meeting weekly in the summer of 2020, in response to a lot of the distress experienced by student workers during the early months of the pandemic. Despite all of the essential labor that we were doing for the university in research and teaching and despite the fact that Penn is an extremely well-resourced university, many of us still felt that we were being disrespected in that relationship.

This was a big point in our early organizing conversations. For example, some researchers were called back to work in-person in labs before a vaccine was available. For many graduate workers at Penn, the experiences during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic made it very clear that we needed to have a union here at the university.

Raghu Arghal

The pandemic was definitely a catalyst, which accentuated problems that predated COVID by a long while. It made it extraordinarily clear that our labor was important to the university, but we didn’t really have any voice.

I started at Penn in 2020, and the lack of clarity on decision-making or any of the processes behind reopening policies, or how courses were going to be structured [made me feel] like I was just left to my own devices as an incoming PhD student. The pandemic highlighted a lot of problems, but I think those problems existed long before COVID and the organizing would have happened either way.

Sara Wexler

How are your wages and your health insurance?

Sam Schirvar

We weren’t making a living wage [before the union drive]. I think Penn takes advantage of the fact that Philadelphia is the largest poor city in the United States and has a relatively more affordable cost of living compared to top universities. The university takes advantage of that to keep wages low.

Even a very large stipend increase just before we started dropping union cards — which we believe was trying to incentivize us to avoid unionization — hardly met the rising cost of living. So we still do not make a living wage at this point.

Sara Wexler

When did you drop cards? And how did the university react when you asked them to voluntarily recognize your union?

Raghu Arghal

The card drop was in January 2023, and we went public in April. We’ve had these cards signed from a majority of students in every college, across many departments — the majority of engineering PhD students and the majority of Wharton PhD students have all signed cards.

We had a large rally in October 2023 when we filed them with the university and submitted a petition asking the university to voluntarily recognize our union. Even then, with this broad-based support, the university was not only unwilling to voluntarily recognize the union but unwilling to even let us directly interface with anybody in administration. We were stopped from entering the building, even though we were all students who regularly go in and out of these buildings.

But I think this turned into an energizing moment for us. We had a large crowd shouting “Let us in!” and it solidified that despite whatever the university does, we had strong support across Penn and were in the fight to win it.

Sam Schirvar

After the university refused to recognize us, we submitted the cards to the NLRB in October.

Sara Wexler

The election was originally scheduled for April, but it was postponed.

Kyla Mace

Initially Penn challenged over half of our unit — it claimed that certain job titles shouldn’t be included, for inconsistent and, frankly, baseless reasons. It ultimately caved on all of those challenges except for one group of workers. Those were first- and second-years in my program, Biomedical Graduate Studies [BGS], and then first-years in biology. These are early-career graduate researchers, some of whom are rotating through different labs to decide where they want to do their dissertations; some of them have joined a dissertation lab.

Penn was arguing that these grad workers are only in training and that they don’t provide any labor for this university. We disagreed, obviously, so we had to go to a hearing to litigate over their inclusion. At that hearing, some other BGS and biology grad workers and I testified about the contributions we make to the university in this early stage of our program, from day one. We contribute to papers, patents, and grants that Penn loves to tout. In response, Penn’s witnesses and lawyers really belittled our contributions. Penn’s lead attorney went as far as to claim that I didn’t even deserve credit for a paper that I’m a coauthor on; it was very insulting.

That was in November, and we had to wait until April to hear back from the regional NLRB. It was in favor of management, and it ruled on a basis that we really disagreed with. We appealed that decision to the NLRB. We asked them to overturn it, and we won — the decision was overturned.

Penn tried to take that as an opening to delay our election even further. The university argued that it needed time to put together a new voter list that would include all these people that it originally excluded. The administration argued that there were no available spaces on campus even to hold an election on any alternate date this semester.

Which . . . there are 180 buildings on the campus. Our coworkers went to the same building that we would have originally had our election in and found available rooms for different dates. When we called Penn out on that, it immediately caved and agreed to hold an election just a few weeks later.

This was all intended to demoralize and frustrate and stall us. But it was kind of a blessing because we got two more weeks to do turnout and got to have an election on May Day. And people were also really mad at how blatant Penn’s attempt to stall us was.

Sara Wexler

It’s a common tactic when people are unionizing, to try to make the bargaining unit as small as possible.

Sam Schirvar

It’s the university trying to make the union as weak as possible. But I think that in itself is a testament to how much the landscape has changed. A decade-plus ago with unionization attempts in higher ed, the unions themselves would sometimes try to carve out favorable units, while management [would try] to include certain groups of students who it believed to be less favorable to unionization.

Now, because the union is so widely favorable across the university, management knows that any graduate workers who are included in the unit are likely to be favorable to unionization. It tries to cut out as many of them as possible to decrease the overall power of the union.

Sara Wexler

Having won the election, what issues do you expect to bargain over? What are the biggest issues for graduate workers?

Kyla Mace

We have a platform of key issues, things that have come up a lot in conversations: safe and reasonable working conditions, protections for international students and students with disabilities, better benefits for grad parents or grads with dependents, and raises that actually keep up with inflation. All kind of basic stuff to make Penn a better and safer place to work for everyone.

But also, Penn is an immensely wealthy, powerful, and prestigious university. A lot of us think that we should be shooting for the moon. Some of us have talked about fighting not just for a living wage but a thriving wage, a wage that reflects the highly skilled work that we provide for this multibillion-dollar institution.

Beyond that, a lot of us are motivated to try to hold Penn accountable to its community and its city. Right now, Penn’s priority is to serve its wealthy trustees and their interests before all else. That means Penn has a parasitic relationship with Philadelphia; it has this multibillion-dollar budget, a huge real estate portfolio, and the largest private police force in the state, but it pays no property taxes and it’s completely unanswerable to its students, workers, and city. Philly’s the poorest big city in America, so that divide is very apparent.

A lot of us are very motivated by those broader issues, whether it’s defunding campus police or pushing Penn to make payments in lieu of taxes to support our schools and our roads in the city, or pushing it to divest from fossil fuels or divest from war and genocide. These are all things that motivate people a lot, even beyond the immediate things that we want to win in our contract — because I and many others won’t even be around to witness the benefits of our contract.

Raghu Arghal

We’re excited about the UAW and it being a fighting union again in the academic sector and the auto industry. Labor unions don’t just have to be about the bread-and-butter issues — they can be about allowing workers to exercise their power in much broader ways.

Sara Wexler

I know Penn had a Gaza solidarity encampment that the administration cleared out, like what happened at Columbia where I am. Has there been any overlap between the unionization movement and the encampment?

Kyla Mace

We don’t yet have elected leadership; the union’s bargaining priorities need to be determined by all of us. But a lot of the organizers in GETUP are very involved and passionate about pushing for a cease-fire in Palestine and pushing Penn to disclose and divest from its investments in Israel.

The night before our election, I was up late listening to the Columbia student reporters [describing how] Columbia sent the [New York Police Department] on their own students. Then last week, Penn sent campus and city police to arrest protesters, some of them also fellow grad workers and union organizers.

To me, these fights are two sides of the same coin. Penn will readily use legal and administrative tools to union bust before they allow its workers a democratic say in their working conditions. Similarly, Penn will wield its militarized police forces against the students and workers before it dares share how it invests their money. To me, it’s all the same fight — but how we actually move forward on any of that has to be decided together.

Sara Wexler

What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced in organizing?

Raghu Arghal

The biggest challenge was creating the infrastructure, the network to reach these grad students. We all sit in different buildings in different departments. The life of a grad student can tend to be a little isolated, and breaking down those barriers took the most elbow grease on our part.

It was a lot of calling people; I think Kyla was in people’s Twitter DMs. We were going door to door throughout the university buildings. But in meeting that challenge, we learned that a lot of the preconceived notions we had about places that were more difficult to organize were actually not true.

I’m an electrical engineer. People tend to assume engineering is one of the harder-to-organize departments. But I found that, once I was in the buildings, once I spoke in plain language about what a union would fight for and why it’s important, there wasn’t a lot of serious pushback. That’s reflected in the margin of our victory, and that was true in a lot of difficult-to-organize departments: it was true in engineering, and it was true in Wharton, places where we had a lot of cards signed where it was thought that that would be unlikely.

That was motivating and reflective of some broader changes in the landscape of higher ed and labor in the United States generally. I think organizing is having a resurgence right now, and we saw that wave day to day as we organized.

Kyla Mace

In some of the first conversations I had with my coworkers, they would say, “I’m supportive, but it’s going to be so hard to get other scientists on board.” But then every single person was saying that — so actually, everyone was supportive.

The challenge very rarely was convincing people. The challenge was always just getting in front of them. The vast majority of people say, “Of course, that sounds great, sign me up.”

Sara Wexler

Why do you think the union won the vote by such a large margin? It was almost unanimous.

Sam Schirvar

Over the past couple years, we’ve built an extensive network that is not only deep within particular departments but is horizontally broad. And we’ve made sure at every step of this process — from people filling out the Airtable “membership” form way back in 2022 to actually signing union cards, to organizing for the vote and signing vote pledges and then turning people out to vote — we’ve made sure that there are active organizers in every single school and every single department and every single lab, that every single worker has a field coordinator and a turf lead organizer who is assigned to make sure that person is ready to vote and is there to answer that person’s questions.

We built that network through structure tests throughout the years, and when it came to the actual election itself, that network went into action. So turf leaders assembled voting parties to get them and their friends together to go and vote at the polls, and we did phonebanking, making sure that every single student worker at Penn received multiple phone calls or texts from coworkers reminding them about the election and answering any questions they had about it.

During walkthroughs on election day, when I was talking to people in labs, I was surprised to uncover that many of them were so confident in the victory. They were saying everyone who works here is supportive of unionization; they didn’t realize that it was important that they should still go vote. They were so confident in the supermajority that we had secured that they felt that they didn’t need to vote yes. But we were there to explain to them that what mattered was not only the fact that a majority of voters vote yes — but that we have hundreds or thousands of people turning out to the polls to show Penn that unionization has broad support, and that we’re going to be a fighting force for graduate workers.

Sara Wexler

How do you imagine a union changing your workplace and overall experience at Penn?

Raghu Arghal

This is going to help build unity across all of our grad workers fighting the hypercompetitive isolation that comes with being a grad student, making it feel not as lonely as it can sometimes. This is something I’ve already felt being involved in GETUP. Odds are I would never have met Sam or Kyla had it not been for GETUP — I would have been in my little engineering bubble. That’s already starting to take effect and will only become stronger.

A larger point is that if graduate workers are treated with respect and have a better quality of life, that would open the doors of academia for a much broader group. Pursuing your education shouldn’t be as much of a luxury as it is now, and especially an organization as powerful as Penn shouldn’t be forcing people to choose between financial security and doing research that they love or contributing to these important fields. That’s especially true if Penn is as serious as it claims to be about diversity, equity, and inclusion. This can only be an inclusive institution if we are constantly working to lower the barriers to entry.

Kyla Mace

Building a union changes the way that we relate to each other fundamentally, and building collective power broadens the horizon for what’s possible. The questions we can ask of each other change. Instead of asking, given the resources and the systems we have, what is reasonable to ask for? What is practical? Once you start talking to your coworkers and figuring out what you can win together, the question changes to: Given what we need to change, given what we deem unacceptable, given the world that we want to live in, what power do we need to build to win that?

That’s a far more empowering place to be. It’s a feeling that I think a lot of us are going to carry with us far beyond our graduate degree, into whatever job we end up at next.

None of this is happening in GETUP alone. There’s a huge resurgence of labor organizing. At Penn, people are coming up to me who aren’t in unions, who aren’t grad workers, and they’re asking, can I join GETUP? Can I vote? How do I do this with my coworkers? The possibilities feel endless right now, when we’re imagining a Penn where more than a few percent of its workers are unionized. What if 20 percent, what if 50 percent were unionized?

Sam Schirvar

The local council of the AFL-CIO found that it is the largest private sector union in Philadelphia’s history. So this is a truly historic victory. That’s a lot to be proud of, but it’s also a lot of responsibility.

We’ve been excited about ongoing organizing with the Coalition of Workers at Penn, which is a new group that’s being run out of the Philadelphia chapter of the AFL-CIO. It is a coalition of all of the unions that represent workers at Penn — so it’s not only academic workers involved in teaching and research but also food-service workers, sanitation workers, librarians, research and administrative staff, and resident advisors. All of these new unions have been organizing and will continue to organize at Penn to increase union density across the university.

That is a very big deal because Penn is also Philadelphia’s largest employer. By building union density at this extremely large employer, we can start to leverage some of that political clout to challenge this institution that has hitherto been completely unaccountable to the city of Philadelphia. We as workers leveraging our labor power together are going to change that.

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Raghu Arghal is a PhD candidate in electrical and systems engineering at Penn and a GETUP-UAW organizer. He has worked at Penn as a teaching assistant and research assistant.

Kyla Mace is a PhD candidate in pharmacology at Penn and a GETUP-UAW organizer. They have worked at Penn as a research fellow.

Sam Schirvar is a PhD candidate in history and sociology of science at Penn and a GETUP-UAW organizer. He has worked at Penn as a teaching assistant and lecturer.

Sara Wexler is a member of UAW Local 2710 and a PhD student at Columbia University.

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