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An expressed intent to organize an authorization card drive for the purpose of unionizing graduate assistants at Penn State has led to questions and requests for information by many graduate students regarding unionization.  In an effort to address the most common questions being raised, the FAQ below is provided for informational purposes.  Links are included to official web sites for the respective governing legislation or entity, if additional detailed information is sought. 

In considering the context for this FAQ, the University considers Penn State’s graduate assistants, like all graduate students, to be students first and foremost, who come to Penn State as an educational institution to seek advanced degrees based upon the quality of Penn State’s graduate programs and its Graduate Faculty, who are nationally and internationally recognized for their research and scholarship.  In order to receive an assistantship, an individual must first be a degree-seeking graduate student.  Penn State highly values the assistantship activities performed by its graduate students as an integral part of the research and teaching community of the University.  Most importantly, those assistantship activities are most often the seminal component of students’ degree programs and/or provide professional development opportunities to prepare students for the spectrum of careers and placement opportunities both within and outside the academy afforded by their advanced degrees.  

 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE LAW AND UNIONIZATION

 

QUESTION:      CAN GRADUATE ASSISTANTS FORM A UNION UNDER PENNSYLVANIA LAW?  

 

ANSWER:    The law that governs labor unions at public employers is the Public Employee Relations Act (PERA).  Also known as Act 195, this law applies to public employees across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  This law is applied and administered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB).  Under PERA, only certain types of employees of a public employer are permitted to organize into a collective bargaining unit.  If graduate assistants wanted to form a union, they would have to go through the legal process that is outlined in PERA.  This process would include filing petitions before the PLRB seeking to be recognized as employees within the meaning of PERA.

 

QUESTION:    WHAT IS THE PROCEDURE FOR UNIONIZING EMPLOYEES?

 

[Note – References to the term “employees” in the information that follows refers to individuals who are deemed to be employees under Pennsylvania law.]  

ANSWER:  The Public Employee Relations Act, PERA, sets forth the procedure a group must follow in order to organize a “bargaining unit”.  The first step in this process is for the organizing group to solicit signatures from employees on authorization cards.  If this organizing group were to obtain signed authorization cards from at least 30% of the individuals they seek to represent, in this case all graduate assistants, the group then could petition the PLRB to hold an election.

If the PLRB is satisfied that a minimum of 30% of those in the proposed bargaining unit have signed cards, it then would determine which proposed members would and would not be included in the proposed bargaining unit, based upon testimony presented by the organizing group and by the University, and conduct an election.  The organizing group may also seek to affiliate with a specific labor union, in which case that labor union would be designated as the exclusive representative for the group.

Every employee in the proposed bargaining unit, even those who did not sign an authorization card, would be entitled to vote.  The vote would be by secret ballot and would be made either by mail or at polling areas selected by the PLRB.  The ballot would permit the employee to vote for a union or for no union.

The outcome of the election would be determined by the majority of those voting, not the majority of those in the proposed bargaining unit.  For example, if the organizing group’s proposed bargaining unit consisted of 2,000 graduate assistants and everyone voted, then the group would need 1,001 “Yes” votes to win the election.  However, if only 3 graduate assistants voted, then the group would need only 2 “Yes” votes to win the election.  However, those 2 votes would make the group the exclusive representative of all 2,000 graduate assistants in the unit.  Therefore, in the case of graduate assistants, those graduate assistants who would decide not to vote would have their future fully determined by those who do vote.

It is important to remember that a graduate assistant does not need to sign an authorization card in order to be eligible to vote in an election for a union.  If the organizing group were to win the election, negotiations for a contract would commence.  The University and the bargaining unit, through its designated union, would have an obligation to bargain in good faith for a contract which would govern the wages, benefits, hours and other working conditions of the members of the bargaining unit.

 

QUESTION:    WHAT IS AN AUTHORIZATION CARD?  

 

ANSWER:    An authorization card drive is the first step under PERA to unionize a group of employees.  Signing such a card legally authorizes an organizing group to act as the signer’s sole agent in seeking an election to establish a union.  According to PERA, if 30% of the proposed members of a bargaining unit, for example graduate assistants, were to sign authorization cards, the organizing group could request that the PLRB hold an election among all graduate assistants to determine if they want to be unionized.  Therefore, signing an authorization card is like signing a petition for union election.

Graduate assistants are not required to sign an authorization card in order to be eligible to vote in a union election, nor does a graduate assistant’s signature on a card legally commit that individual to vote for the union in an election.  In addition, graduate assistants have the legal right to refuse to sign, or to sign, authorization cards without pressure or coercion from anyone.  

 

QUESTION:    WHAT POSITIONS WOULD BE INCLUDED IN A BARGAINING UNIT?  

 

ANSWER:    Only positions that share a community of interest in wages, benefits, hours and other working conditions generally make up the bargaining unit.  Under PERA, the PLRB has latitude to include broad groups of employees in a single unit to avoid the effects of splintering employees into many bargaining units.  However, PERA does impose some statutory limitations on the types of employees that can be included.  For example, positions determined to be supervisory or managerial, as defined by law, cannot be included in the bargaining unit.

Any employee holding a position which the PLRB has determined to be in a proposed bargaining unit would be eligible to vote in a unit election, whether or not an authorization card had been signed by the employee.  If the union were to win the election, it would be certified as the exclusive representative of every employee in the bargaining unit.  In the case of graduate assistants, every graduate assistant that the PLRB determined should be in the bargaining unit would be subject to the terms and conditions of any labor contract between the University and the union.

 

QUESTION:    WHAT IS THE PROCEDURE FOR AN ELECTION?  

 

ANSWER:    After a petition for representation and authorization cards are filed by an organizing group to show an interest in unionization by at least 30% of the employees who would be in the proposed bargaining unit, the PLRB then decides which positions are included and schedules an election.

Every employee in the proposed bargaining unit, even those who had not signed an authorization card, would be entitled to vote.  The vote would be by secret ballot and would be made either by mail or at polling areas selected by the PLRB.  The ballot would permit the employee to vote for a union or for no union.

The outcome of the election would be determined by the majority of those voting, not the majority of those in the proposed bargaining unit.  For example, if the organizing group’s proposed bargaining unit consisted of 2,000 graduate assistants and everyone voted, then the group would need 1,001 “Yes” votes to win the election.  However, if only 3 graduate assistants voted, then the group would need only 2 “Yes” votes to win the election.  However, those 2 votes would make the group the exclusive representative of all 2,000 graduate assistants in the unit.  Therefore, in the case of graduate assistants, those graduate assistants who would decide not to vote would have their future fully determined by those who do vote.

It is important to remember that a graduate assistant does not need to sign an authorization card in order to be eligible to vote in an election for a union.

 

QUESTION:     IF THE UNION WINS THE ELECTION, WHAT WOULD BE INVOLVED IN THE FIRST NEGOTIATIONS?

 

ANSWER:    An employer has an obligation to bargain in good faith with a duly elected, certified union concerning wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions of all employees in the bargaining unit.  If the bargaining is successful, the employer and the union sign a labor contract.

First negotiations with the union would begin at ground zero with a blank slate; that is, economic and non-economic provisions such as stipends, annual stipend increases, medical benefits, tuition waiver, other working conditions, etc. would be bargained as new items.

 

QUESTION:    WHAT IS MEANT BY THE TERM “BARGAINING IN GOOD FAITH?”  

 

ANSWER:    To bargain in good faith means that both the employer and the union must try to make a serious effort to resolve differences, reach an agreement and sign a contract.  It does not mean that either the employer or the union is required to agree to any demand made by the other.
Therefore, promises that may be made by an organizing group or a union to University graduate assistants would not be binding upon the University.

 

QUESTION:    WHAT MATTERS ARE NOT SUBJECT TO NEGOTIATION?  

 

ANSWER:    A union cannot decide who is to be hired, or fired (except in certain circumstances for the nonpayment of union dues or fees), nor can a union require the employer to negotiate with respect to such things as:

  • Academic requirements and judgements
  • Determination of reporting channels
  • Budgeting and allocation of funds
  • Number and distribution of graduate assistants
  • Selection and retention of supervisory personnel
  • Selection for positions not included in the bargaining unit
  • The number of graduate assistant positions at any specific level

 

QUESTION:    WHAT ABOUT DUES? 

 

ANSWER:    In July, 1988 the state passed the “Fair Share Fee Act” amending PERA.  This Act permits unions to negotiate an “agency shop.” With an agency shop, employees retain the right to choose whether or not they want to become a member of the union.  However, everyone in the bargaining unit is required to make payment to the union, either in the form of dues, if they are union members, or in the form of mandatory pay deductions for their fair share fee, if they are not union members.

Dues for employees in the bargaining unit are determined by the union.  

At this time, the anticipated union dues structure of a possible graduate assistant union is not known to the University.

 

QUESTION:    CAN EMPLOYEES JUST “TRY” THE UNION FOR A WHILE?  

 

ANSWER:    Once elected and certified by the PLRB as the exclusive bargaining representative of a group of employees, a union will always be the exclusive representative unless it is decertified by the PLRB.  Decertification of a union is a rare occurrence under PERA.

In order to decertify a union, bargaining unit employees must file a decertification petition showing that at least 50% of the employees in the unit desire not to be represented by the union.  The PLRB will then conduct an election among the employees in the bargaining unit to determine whether the employees will continue to be represented by the union.

A decertification petition may not be filed until at least one year after the union is certified.  Thereafter, a decertification petition may be filed during a window period of 50 to 90 days before the expiration date of the labor contract.

While a union may expend its financial resources in opposing a decertification petition, an employer is legally prohibited from giving financial or other assistance to employees attempting to decertify a union.

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