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Guidance for Faculty and Other Supervisors of Graduate Student Assistants Regarding Unionization Efforts Underway by the Pennsylvania State Education Association 2016

This document provides information about unionization activity underway by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State.  For more information about PSEA is available at  The PSEA is sponsoring a card drive to collect signatures from graduate students with the goal of holding an election to determine if they have support to represent graduate student assistants in a union at Penn State.  It is recommended that faculty and other supervisors of graduate student assistants review and become familiar with the detailed FAQ regarding unionization, including information about a card drive and election.

There is a perception that faculty and other supervisors may not discuss various union-related issues with graduate students in light of the unionization effort.  That is not the case.  At this stage of PSEA's activities, faculty members and other supervisors of graduate student assistants are free to: 

  • Listen to graduate student assistants if they voluntarily choose to speak about their views and respond to graduate student assistants’ questions and/or address inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Tell graduate student assistants that the union authorization card is a legal document with legal significance and can be used to get an election ordered by a state agency. Like any legal document, it is important to fully understand the ramifications before signing an authorization card (refer graduate students to facts regarding unionization).
  • Explain the University's efforts to address graduate student concerns in the past, and its continued commitment to providing graduate student assistants with a world-class graduate education, and teaching and/or research experience in their respective fields to prepare them for careers when they leave the University.
  • Tell graduate assistants about the benefits they presently enjoy and the resources that are available to them (refer to Information for Graduate Assistants). 
  • Share information with graduate student assistants about the competitive nature of the stipends and benefits at Penn State when compared against other institutions.    
  • Tell graduate student assistants that they are free to join or not to join any organization, without prejudice to their status with the University.    
  • Explain what would change with unionization versus the current state, such as currently being able to work directly with faculty mentors regarding scheduling and other matters related to their assistantship.
  • Explain some of the known aspects of belonging to a union – such as initiation fees and monthly dues; membership rules that may prohibit certain activities; the possibility of a strike at some point; and loss of their ability to work directly with their faculty mentors on matters involving stipends, hours, and other assistantship conditions.  
  • It is accurate to inform graduate student assistants that during negotiations with the union, the University does not have to honor their current arrangements or agree to all of the union’s terms. In addition, the University retains the sole right under the law to determine academic matters, including: academic requirements; research topics; course credit towards a degree program; and hiring criteria for graduate student assistant positions. 
  • Tell graduate student assistants about any experience you may have had with unions, especially the union seeking to represent graduate student assistants.  Be very factual.   
  • Remind graduate student assistants that communicating with PSEA representatives regarding their assistantship duties or other aspects of their appointment is not permitted during time allotted for assistantship responsibilities.
  • Tell graduate student assistants they do not have to talk with union organizers at their homes or anywhere else, unless they wish to do so.   

While it is important to share accurate information, there are also areas where faculty should be cautious about their interactions.  In addition to the FAQ referenced above, the guidelines below are provided for faculty and other supervisors of graduate student assistants to help inform your interactions.  As you may know from news accounts, there is a fundamental question of whether graduate student assistants are primarily students, or whether they are employees.  Nonetheless, the PSEA has the legal right to communicate with graduate student assistants concerning unionization, and the University respects PSEA’s rights in this regard, subject to generally applicable restrictions prohibiting graduate student assistants from engaging in non-assistant-related activities during time allotted for assistant-related responsibilities.  Consistent with the University's respect for the rights of its students, the University wants to ensure that faculty members and other supervisors of graduate student assistants refrain from conduct that might interfere with these rights.  It is important that all faculty and other supervisors of graduate student assistants become familiar with and adhere to the following guidelines:

Under applicable law, with respect to unionization, faculty and other supervisors of graduate student assistants MUST NOT:

  • Threaten graduate student assistants;
  • Interrogate graduate student assistants;
  • Make promises to graduate student assistants;
  • Conduct surveillance of graduate student assistants; or
  • Solicit grievances from graduate student assistants.

Faculty and other supervisors can remember these prohibitions by using the acronym T.I.P.S.S., standing for Threats, Interrogation, Promises, Surveillance, and Solicitation.  These items are explained in more detail below.

No Threats

Faculty and other supervisors may not threaten graduate student assistants with harm or reprisals (economic, academic or other) if they decide to support PSEA’s efforts (or unions generally).  Likewise, faculty and other supervisors may not threaten graduate student assistants if they choose NOT to support PSEA.  Prohibited threats can come in many different forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Threatening to punish or discharge graduate student assistants if they engage in or choose not to engage in PSEA activities.
  • Making onerous assistantship assignments to graduate student assistants or requiring them to work unscheduled days to punish them if they support or choose not to support PSEA activities.
  • Telling graduate student assistants that if PSEA wins an election, it will result in a strike, the end of an assistantship benefit, or a shutdown of operations.
  • Visiting homes of graduate student assistants to urge them to reject PSEA.
  • Threatening other adverse consequences based on graduate student assistants’ PSEA activity or support. 

No Interrogation

Faculty and other supervisors may not interrogate graduate student assistants or ask graduate student assistants about their attitude towards PSEA or their PSEA activities. For example, faculty and other supervisors may not ask graduate student assistants:

  • If they signed a PSEA authorization card, or any other documents furnished by PSEA. 
  • If they support PSEA’s efforts to organize graduate student assistants and hold an election.
  • If they support PSEA or unions in general.
  • How they would vote in a PSEA representation election.
  • About their PSEA activities or the PSEA activities of other graduate student assistants.
  • What happened at a PSEA meeting, or who attended a PSEA meeting.

No Promises or Grant of Benefits

Faculty and other supervisors may not promise any benefit or reward to a graduate student assistant for refusing to sign the PSEA’s authorization card or any other documents provided by PSEA.  By the same token, faculty and other supervisors cannot offer benefits or promise rewards to graduate students to entice them to sign the PSEA's authorization card.  By way of example, faculty and supervisors may not:  

  • Promise a stipend increase, extension of an assistantship appointment, a scholarship or any increase in benefits based on the graduate student’s opposition to or support of PSEA activity.
  • Take any other substantive action regarding a graduate student assistantship, such as granting time off or offering a more lenient assistantship assignment based upon a graduate student’s opposition to or support of PSEA.

No Surveillance

Faculty and other supervisors may not conduct surveillance of graduate student assistants or give the impression of unlawful surveillance. Examples of unlawful surveillance include:

  • Observing PSEA meetings to identify graduate student assistants who attend.
  • Photographing, videotaping, or otherwise recording graduate student assistants’ conversations with PSEA representatives. 
  • Giving graduate student assistants the impression that their PSEA activities are being monitored.
  • Following PSEA organizers around campus. 

No Solicitation

Lastly, faculty and other supervisors may not start, or use new methods, to solicit grievances about stipends, benefits, or working conditions from graduate student assistants and imply or promise improvements. Examples of unlawful conduct include: 

  • Asking graduate student assistants about issues and concerns with their assistantship and promising to address same, to the extent that faculty and supervisors did not have a practice or policy of doing this before the onset of PSEA activity.  
  • Providing graduate student assistants with questionnaires, attitude surveys, or suggestion boxes after the onset of PSEA activity.  

In all other regards, faculty should engage and interact with their graduate students as they have in the past.  For example, faculty should continue to make assignments and enforce University rules and policies in the usual manner, without regard to unionization efforts.  

A great deal of the above guidance amounts to common sense.  Fundamentally, the University strives to do the right thing by our graduate students and to treat them fairly, in any and all cases, and at all times.  

Thank you for your attention to reviewing, understanding and adhering to the above guidelines. 

If you have any questions about this document, please contact Dr. Suzanne Adair, Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs (; 814-865-2516). 

Last Updated: April, 2016

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