State Supreme Court Precedent Says Grad Assistants Can’t be Unionized
March 26, 2018, State College, Pa.—Michael Cronin, a doctoral student and graduate assistant, came to Penn State University to get an education, not to join a union. But a union backed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association says that Cronin and his graduate assistant colleagues are public employee —and has targeted him and nearly 4,000 other graduate assistants for unionization.
Faced with the prospect of losing the ability to determine his own educational future, Cronin, who studies Energy and Mineral Engineering, filed a motion to intervene in an ongoing legal matter before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB). He ultimately seeks to halt a union election scheduled for April and overturn a hearing examiner’s decision to designate him a public employee pending legal review.
“I accepted my appointment [at PSU] to further my education,” Cronin stated in an affidavit filed with the PLRB Friday afternoon. “Had I merely sought to earn money as an employee during my time as a doctoral student, I could have and would have done something other than being a graduate assistant.”
A 1977 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Philadelphia Ass’n of Interns & Residents v. Albert Einstein Medical Center, Temple University established that individuals paid to perform work primarily for educational or training purposes could not be unionized. See the case backgrounder (linked below) for more detail.
“State Supreme Court precedent clearly puts graduate assistants like Michael off-limits for unionization,” commented David Osborne, president and general counsel for the Fairness Center, which represents Cronin. “The Court reasoned that because graduate assistants are primarily seeking education, not employment, and because their positions are temporary, they cannot be considered employees and cannot be subjected to exclusive representation. However, the PLRB has ignored this precedent since the mid-1990s, and no legal challenge has been brought since.”
Union elections are expected in April at Penn State University campuses across the state, including University Park, Hershey Medical, and PSU Harrisburg. Should a majority of those voting in the election approve the union, all Penn State University graduate assistants would be forced into a bargaining unit represented by the PSEA-backed Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE). All graduate assistants would then be forced to abide by the contract and work rules negotiated by the CGE, even if they did not vote for the CGE.
These students could be called on to strike under certain circumstances, potentially delaying their graduation dates and negatively impacting their career opportunities as a result.
“The duties I perform as a function of my service as a graduate assistant are primarily educational and train me for a future career,” continues Cronin’s sworn statement. “I do not consent to the Coalition of Graduate Employees representation. I should be free to speak for myself.”
Michael Cronin is a doctoral student of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State University, where he is working with two faculty advisors on his dissertation and expects to graduate in 2020.
Michael Cronin and David Osborne are available for comment.
Contact Conner Drigotas at 844-293-1001 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an interview.
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The Fairness Center is a nonprofit, public interest law firm offering free legal services to those hurt by public employee union officials. For more information visit www.FairnessCenter.org.