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Penn State Graduate Students Vote Against Unionization

Matt Rourke
Old Main is shrowded by Spring blooms on the Penn State University campus Friday, Nov. 28, 2014 in State College, Pa.

Graduate students at Penn State University have voted against union representation, ending a four-year battle against the school administration.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hand-tallied paper votes for hours in Harrisburg on Tuesday. Of the 3,800 graduate students eligible to vote, 950 voted for unionization and 1,438 voted against, according to a press release. 

The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State, the group advocating for unionization, wanted to join up with the state's largest union, Pennsylvania State Education Association, which would have put the school among more than 30 other universities that have graduate student unions. 

Unionization efforts began when the university changed graduate students' health care benefits without alerting the teaching assistants and research assistants. But Penn State officials have been strongly anti-union. In a letter to the university community, President Eric Barron said graduate students are "students first and foremost," not workers. The school suggests graduate students air their grievances in other ways, like reaching out to supervisors. 

The conflict came to a head last month when the school administration cautioned that international students could lose their status if the yet-to-be-formed union ever went on strike, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. And an anti-union group backed one student who tried to stop the election altogether. 

The Coalition of Graduate Employees said in a press release that the group was disappointed and shocked that so many of their peers disagreed with unionization.

"Unfortunately, the graduate school's outrageous anti-union campaign bullied and scared graduate assistants," coalition co-president Jerome Clarke said. 

In a Penn State press release, school officials said they are pleased with the results of the election: "The Graduate School will continue to address areas of concern to graduate students through direct interaction."

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.
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