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Penn State grad students to seek to unionize

| Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, 8:27 p.m.

Penn State graduate students who teach and do research Wednesday launched a union drive at University Park.

Their petition seeking a union election among 3,724 graduate student assistants at the state-related research university comes two weeks after graduate students at Pitt went public with their effort to seek an election among some 3,000 graduate teaching and research assistants at the Oakland campus.

Graduate students at the two universities launched public efforts only after yearlong organizing efforts behind the scenes.

The graduate students at Penn State are organizing as the Coalition of Graduate Employees. They have been working with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the umbrella organization that represents public school unions in Pennsylvania.

The Pitt students, who held a public rally to kick off their card drive Feb. 11, are organizing under the auspices of the United Steelworkers Union.

Ben Case, a spokesman for the organizing committee at Pitt, said graduate students at the two schools have been in touch in recent months.

“The more the great universities in Pennsylvania are unionized, the better it will be,” Case said.

Organizers at University Park delivered letters to the Penn State administration Wednesday, asking that officials maintain neutrality as the group works toward a union election there.

“Sadly, the administration has misinformed Penn State graduate employees about their rights, and what unionizing means,” said Doug Kulchar, co-president of the PSU Coalition of Graduate Employees. “We hope that moving forward, we can help give Penn State graduate employees forthright and honest information so they can cast an informed ballot.”

Lisa Powers, PSU's senior director of news media relations, said “the university recognizes that graduate students make important and valuable contributions to Penn State, but we see these activities principally as learning/training opportunities that help prepare students for their future careers. We recognize the many challenges our students face however, and would like to be able to continue to work directly with our graduate students and not through a third party.”

Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, a spokesman for the Penn State organizing committee, said they are seeking better pay and a seat at the table when policies affecting benefits are discussed.

The efforts at Pitt and Penn State follow several successful organizing efforts in recent years among part-time faculty at three private universities — Duquesne, Robert Morris and Point Park.

Graduate students at Temple University, Pennsylvania's third state-related research university, launched the state's first graduate student union 16 years ago.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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