PHILADELPHIA – Hundreds of University of Pennsylvania graduate student employees held a two-day strike Feb. 26-27 to protest the university administration’s refusal to recognize their right to join a union.

One year ago, the National Labor Relations Board conducted a representation election. The school’s 3,600 doctoral students cast ballots to decide if GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) would represent them. But the university filed an appeal with the NLRB and the ballots were sealed, not counted.

GET-UP is asking Penn’s Board of Trustees to drop its appeal and accept whatever choice graduate student employees made in February 2003. The Board of Trustees refuses. The National Labor Relations Board says it will decide on the appeal within the year.

During the strike, GET-UP asked faculty members to continue to do their work but not to do the graduate employees’ jobs. Some undergraduate students showed their support by carrying signs on the picket line. Picketers reported that although many undergraduate students did not at first understand the issue, they were educated by the strike. GET-UP has over 1,000 members at the university and 83 percent voted for the strike. The university warned of possible pay loss and disciplinary action.

“GET-UP, a four-year campaign for union representation, is about having a voice in our working conditions, salary and health care benefits,” said Dillon Brown, a graduate student in English who is a member of GET-UP.

Graduate student employees teach classes, assist professors in the classroom and laboratories and do research. Most are working on their doctoral degree. The salary, called a stipend, averages $12,000 – $15,000 a year depending on the department in which the student is employed. These graduate students are older and many are married with families.

“They need adequate, affordable, comprehensive health care benefits,” said Brown. He added, “The Student Health Center does not meet our needs.”

GET-UP says the University of Pennsylvania has an endowment of over $3 billion, is spending millions buying property in Philadelphia and can afford to treat its graduate student employees fairly. Yale, Columbia, Boston University and Temple University are a few of the universities where graduate student employees are unionized.

GET-UP is supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, being sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) The Act would guarantee all workers, including graduate student employees, the right to join a union through a “card check procedure,” eliminating employer delays such as these workers are experiencing.

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net.

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