Town Hall covers range of graduate student unionization topics

Graduate students filled the Ruth Pike Auditorium in Penn State's Biobehavioral Health Building on March 13 for a Town Hall meeting that discussed graduate student unionization. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Stipends and benefits, the upcoming union representation election, voting, and research were among the topics covered during a Town Hall with Penn State leaders Tuesday evening (March 13) that focused on graduate student unionization. The event took place in the Biobehavioral Health Building at University Park, and also was livestreamed for community members at every Penn State campus to view. 

Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost, and Regina Vasilatos-Younken, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School, answered a range of questions that graduate students had the opportunity to submit before and during the Town Hall. Jones said that the goal of the event, as with every Town Hall, is to provide accurate information and answer questions graduate students have about academic issues, and in this particular instance, the current unionization effort. 

“I am so pleased to see so many students in attendance, both in person and online, who want to learn more about potential unionization and the impact it may have on students personally and academically,” Jones said. “With this upcoming election, I hope all impacted students will get the facts, avoid misinformation, consider all points of view, form your own opinions and vote. I can’t stress enough how important it is to make your voice heard since every voice counts toward the outcome. A simple majority of those who actually vote will determine the result for all graduate students on assistantships and traineeships – even if you don’t vote.’”  

In February, a hearing examiner from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) issued a decision that a group of graduate students could hold an election to determine if they wish to be represented by a union. This is a group of about 3,800 graduate students who are on assistantships and traineeships across multiple campuses. Though tentative dates were proposed for an election in mid-April, specific details about the election are still being worked out by representatives from the University, the PLRB and the proposed union. Penn State will continue to communicate with students as more information becomes available. 

Before answering questions, Jones reiterated that University leadership has always viewed graduate students as individuals who have come to Penn State for an advanced degree, not as employees who came for a job.

“As a premier research university, the hallmark of graduate education at Penn State is the individualized training each of you receives and your unique one-on-one relationship with faculty advisers,” said Jones. “We believe having a third-party – such as a union – inserted in this relationship would not best serve your academic needs or professional growth.”

Among the topics discussed at the Town Hall was the impact potential unionization could have on graduate student support packages, which currently include a stipend, full tuition remission, subsidized high-quality health insurance and summer tuition assistance.

Vasilatos-Younken said that on average these funding packages range between $50,000 and $65,000 per year, and that at this time no one knows how a union could impact these packages.

“We are dedicated to providing the best packages to support students as they study and develop professional skills, and there is no guarantee that with a union these packages will remain as they are or how they might change,” she said. “With collective bargaining, some could increase, some could decrease and some could remain the same.”

Throughout the session, Vasilatos-Younken reiterated that research assistants often are either a small segment or completely excluded from being part of graduate student unions at other Big Ten and peer institutions. However, at Penn State, research assistants would not only be included, they would make up the majority of the bargaining unit.

“What’s been proposed at Penn State has almost no precedent at our Big Ten peer schools,” Vasilatos-Younken said. “Since research assistantships are closely aligned with students’ own dissertation research, a union could have an impact for example on graduate students in STEM disciplines. We want the best for all graduate students and this is something that is just unknown.”

Audience questions ranged from the possibility of strikes and union dues to how union decisions would be made with respect to a collective bargaining agreement.

Since unions generally adopt a one-size fits all approach, a collective bargaining agreement would apply to all graduate assistants and trainees, and could limit the flexibility of students, faculty mentors and the Graduate School to tailor assignments, research projects, time spent on research, and financial support packages both to the needs of specific academic programs or disciplines – with nearly 200 fields of study – and to individual students within those programs, according to Vasilatos-Younken.

She said that students cannot opt out of the bargaining unit, and explained that there are several unknowns when it comes to paying dues. For example, Vasilatos-Younken said the union may decide that only dues-paying members of the union are permitted to vote on matters that impact everyone in the bargaining unit, including collective bargaining agreements, election of union leaders, or a decision to strike. However, all bargaining unit members will still be impacted by these decisions, even if they do not have a formal voice in the process.

Questions about schedules and time spent on research also were addressed, and Vasilatos-Younken said that the union could seek to bargain over assistantship hours, schedules and time spent on research.

When asked about how a union could help graduate students address various social issues, Vasilatos-Younken said that while these topics are very important and impact all of us, they are outside the realm of collective bargaining, which would be confined to terms and conditions of assistantships and traineeships.   

“At Penn State, we advocate on your behalf daily on a range of topics that we know impact your lives – from taxes and immigration issues, to harassment concerns and health issues, and we continue to work to put in place protocols and processes to more easily report any concerns that could impede your education here at Penn State,” Jones said. “We have both formal and grassroots groups that students can join to address these issues, and there are many numbers of ways in which you can get involved. Students, faculty and staff play important roles in these advocacy efforts, and bring forth many ideas and suggestions, and we welcome all input.”

Vasilatos-Younken said that there are many avenues for students to get support and voice concerns, including by contacting Sarah Ades, associate dean for graduate student affairs, who serves as an ombudsperson and advocate for all graduate students. In addition, students can have a say in University decisions, including through Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) representation on various governance bodies and committees.

“For both Dean Vasilatos-Younken and me, our priority is continuing to improve graduate education at Penn State so that you, as advanced degree students, have every opportunity to excel,” said Jones. “It’s clear that there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what the impact of a possible union would mean for students. We would love to be able to provide more specific answers, but at this time, no one knows what will happen. The most important next step is to vote.”

In addition to the many questions that were submitted during the Town Hall, more than 60 were emailed prior to the event. With limited time to answer every question during the event, graduate students who have additional questions can send them to or In addition, students can learn more by reviewing the Unionization FAQs and other resources available at

Since 2015, Town Hall meetings have provided opportunities for members of the Penn State community to receive updates on University initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback.

To view the Town Hall in its entirety, the session will soon be archived and available to watch online at

Last Updated September 04, 2020