My interview with Tina Collins of Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania (GETUP), a teaching assistants union in Philadelphia’s premier university. Originally published in the December 222nd-28th, 2005 issue of the Philadelphia City Paper, online version available here. — CS 16.07.2008
At colleges and universities nationwide, graduate students do the research and teaching for their professors, in the expectation of eventually becoming tenured profs themselves. However, a recent study by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found private universities are utilizing grads to save cash at the expense of full-time positions, and possibly the quality of higher education. As political director and founding member of Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania, Collins can’t get an audience with university president Amy Gutmann, but recently met with AFL-CIO bigwigs. GET-UP members say they may launch a major multidepartmental strike next semester, or even run a member in local Democratic-ward elections.
City Paper: What is GET-UP’s next step?
Tina Collins: Our next step will be to continue working on issues like improving our health care. Currently, people lose their coverage after their fifth year, and the plan itself isn’t very good. … We also plan to work with our political and community supporters to keep pressing the administration to meet with us and to recognize our right to unionize.
CP: How would unionization economically and academically affect your status as a student, as well as the university as a whole?
TC: At other universities with unions, stipends and benefits have increased significantly. … I expect that we would also be able to negotiate those type of improvements at Penn. … I think unionization would benefit the university by both improving the kinds of funding packages they could offer to prospective students and by letting people focus on their academic work without worrying as much about how they’re going to pay the rent.
CP: What do you envision as the long-term benefits and detriments of unionization?
TC: Graduate school will become more accessible to people who rely on their jobs at the university to pay for their education, and graduate employees will see themselves as members of the academic profession earlier in their careers because they’ll have more of a voice in what they do. Unfortunately, I think that the vehement opposition of Penn and [New York University] to grad unionization has set a bad tone for this effort so far. I hope that they change their positions soon so that we can begin working more productively together on graduate employment issues.