The University's administrators and its stakeholders have been engaged in a relatively one sided conversation about wellness and the state of benefits at Penn State since the summer of 2013 when, without substantial engagement, the University rolled out what proved to be quite controversial changes to its benefits programs for faculty and staff. (The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function).
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
Penn State is not unique--most large universities have, perhaps on the theory of "benchmarking strength in numbers", have coordinated loosely (though I have no idea whether it was intentional or instrumentally managed) on similar approaches at roughly the same time. I have chronicled some of this engagement (e.g., The "Narrative Advantage": The Two Faces of Wellness Programs at Penn State and the Importance of Control Its Master Narrative; The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives).
Now the university, again probably not unlike others, has opened a new front in its wellness wars. This time the objects are students. Penn State, like many other public universities, is moving to substantially constrict benefits for its graduate and student assistants without any decrease in working conditions and obligations. It intends to substantially increase premiums and benefits costs to students. The move is necessary, from the university's perspective, to preserve fiscal integrity and the viability of its benefits programs (e.g., Peter Schmidt, College Leaders and Labor Organizers Spar Over Possible Graduate Student Unionization, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24, 2012). The move is unwelcome, from the student perspective, because of the precariousness of their existence now made harder by these moves (e.g., Sean Flynn, EDITORIAL: Grad students give more than they get, Voices, March 5, 2013).
This move may have consequences. Already there is a strong movement toward unionization of graduate students (Christy Thornton, Opinion: "Why NYU Grad Students Fought to Unionize," Al-Jazeera, Dec. 16, 2013).
Graduate student unionization is very much in the news these days, with the National Labor Relations Board expected to rule soon on whether graduate assistants may unionize at private universities. . . .
Currently, there are no private universities with graduate student unions. But many public universities have them, and the authors of a paper released this year surveyed similar graduate students at universities with and without unions about pay and also the student-faculty relationship. The study found unionized graduate students earn more, on average. And on various measures of student-faculty relations, the survey found either no difference or (in some cases) better relations at unionized campuses.
The paper (abstract available here [and below]) appears in ILR Review, published by Cornell University. (Scott Jaschik, Union Impact and Non-Impact, Inside Higher Education, October 2013)
Indeed, even within the CIC, a trade organization of mostly state and state assisted universities in mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions of the United States, the issues are looming larger. "Legislation that aimed to stop University of Michigan graduate student researchers from unionizing is unconstitutional, according to a ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith. The decision by Goldsmith, an appointee of President Barack Obama, follows a years-long struggle by the graduate student research assistants to form a collective bargaining unit. The group represents 2,200 graduate students employed by U-M professors to assist in research projects involving lab work, data analysis or some other task that is not related to teaching." (Kim Kozlowski, Federal judge strikes down state law banning unionization of graduate students, The Detroit News, Feb. 5, 2014).Read more from original sources below.