RAs and GRAs are student leaders in the College Houses, supporting and guiding other students who are learning and growing together in Penn’s distinctive living/learning communities.
Frequently Asked Questions
Regarding RA and GRA Unionization
(updated April 13, 2023)
The Union Petition to Represent Penn’s RAs and GRAs
- Has there been a union petition filed for representation of Penn’s RAs and GRAs?
Yes. A petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.
- Who is included in the bargaining unit the union seeks to represent?
The representation petition describes the bargaining unit as all “resident assistants and graduate resident assistants”. We believe this is intended to refer to all Resident Advisors (RAs) and Graduate Resident Advisors (GRAs) in Penn’s College Houses.
- What happens next?
Shortly after the petition was filed, Penn and the union provided information to the NLRB and to each other. That information exchange was followed by a hearing before the NLRB on April 3 and 4 to resolve legal issues. Additional written information from both Penn and the union is due to the NLRB by Tuesday, April 18, 2023. The NLRB will then have the information it needs to determine any next steps. It is unclear how soon after the April 18 date the NLRB will issue its decision. If the NLRB determines that an election should be held, the decision it issues will indicate the appropriate unit for the election (i.e., who is eligible to vote) as well as the location, date and times for the election.
- Does the information that Penn must provide to the NLRB and the union include any personal information regarding RAs and GRAs? Can Penn decline to provide this information?
Yes, the information that Penn must provide to the NLRB and the union does include personal information regarding RAs and GRAs. Shortly after the petition was filed, Penn was required to provide a list of all RAs and GRAs in the proposed bargaining unit along with work locations. Later on in the process, Penn must also provide contact information for all RAs and GRAs in the final bargaining unit, including personal email and cell phone numbers if available. Penn cannot decline to provide this information. Because a petition was filed, Penn is legally obligated to provide this information, with only limited exceptions under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Penn is committed to ensuring the privacy of RA/GRA educational records, and Penn explained to the NLRB that it cannot share FERPA-protected information with the NLRB or with the union without first going through the appropriate steps which include notice to impacted RAs/GRAs and an opportunity to object. (For additional information regarding FERPA, see the FERPA page on the Office of Audit, Compliance and Privacy website.)
- Isn’t there already an election date?
No. An election date has not yet been set. It is the NLRB’s process to announce the election date at the same time as it announces the appropriate unit for the election after considering all of the information submitted by Penn and by the union. April 18, 2023 is the due date for Penn and the union to provide additional information.
- Who will be eligible to vote in an election?
The NLRB will clarify who is eligible to vote when the NLRB sets the election date and location.
- Will RAs and GRAs who are international students be eligible to vote?
Yes, international students who are part of the bargaining unit are eligible to vote. Citizenship or visa status are not eligibility criteria. All RAs and GRAs who are eligible to vote should vote, including international students, as all members of the bargaining unit will be bound by the results of the election.
- What if I already signed a union authorization card? Does that count as my vote?
No, a union authorization card does not constitute a vote. RAs and GRAs who have already signed union authorization cards are not obligated to vote in favor of the union during the secret ballot election. Any eligible voter may vote for or against the union, regardless of whether they signed or did not sign an authorization card.
- How will the outcome of the union election be determined?
The outcome of an election will be determined by a simple majority of the RAs and GRAs who vote. Even if only a small fraction of the RAs and GRAs vote, all RAs and GRAs will be bound by the result. For example, if there are 200 eligible RA and GRA voters but only 50 vote, the outcome will be determined by those 50 RAs and GRAs who voted. It is very important that all RAs and GRAs vote.
- If I do not vote, am I still subject to the terms of the union contract if the union wins?
Yes. Union contracts cover everyone in the bargaining unit, even if you did not vote in the election, voted against the union, or object to the terms the union negotiates. It is very important that you vote because you will be bound by the results of the election and, if the union wins, by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
- If Penn’s RAs and GRAs vote in favor of unionization, what happens next?
If Penn’s RAs and GRAs vote in favor of unionization, the next step is for there to be collective bargaining, which is a negotiation process. The union will be considered the exclusive collective bargaining representative for all RAs and GRAs.
- What would Penn and the union negotiate during collective bargaining?
There are some mandatory subjects of bargaining. They are considered to be “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.” Beyond that, there are no required subjects of bargaining. For example, there is no obligation to bargain over things like college house amenities or maintenance.
- Would negotiations start with what the RAs and GRAs have now? Would that be a floor for the negotiations?
During collective bargaining negotiations, the parties decide what to negotiate as well as their starting positions for negotiations. There is no obligation to start with what the RAs and GRAs have now. That is all subject to negotiations. A union may promise that RAs and GRAs will get more if the union wins the election, but the union cannot guarantee that because everything needs to be negotiated. RAs and GRAs may end up with more than they have now, less than they have now or the same as they have now.
- Are Penn and the union required to reach an agreement regarding the subjects that they do bargain?
No. The law is clear that neither the union nor Penn is required to agree to a proposal. Both parties would be required to bargain in good faith.
- How would things be different for RAs and GRAs once a bargaining agreement is negotiated?
It is not possible to answer that question now. The answer depends on the outcome of the collective bargaining process. The parties are not required to agree to proposals or to make concessions. This is strictly up to the parties. The parties are obligated to bargain in good faith.
- What is bargaining in good faith?
It is the requirement of both parties to meet and negotiate at reasonable times with a willingness to reach an agreement on matters within the scope of representation. However, under good faith bargaining neither party is required to make a concession or agree to any proposal.
- What is the negotiation process like?
Negotiations are a give-and-take process, and there is the possibility that RAs and GRAs could end up with more than they have now, less than they have now or something similar to what they have now.
- How are RA and GRA interests represented in negotiations? Who will run negotiations for the union?
Penn cannot answer this question. This will be determined by the union. The union decides who will negotiate on behalf of the RAs and GRAs, what subjects to pursue and what the union’s position will be on those subjects.
- How long would it take Penn and the union to enter into a collective bargaining agreement for RAs and GRAs?
It is not possible to answer that question now. Bargaining a first contract can take a long time because there is a lot to negotiate. A June 2021 Bloomberg Law analysis estimated that, on average, it takes 409 days for new unions and their employers to sign their first collective bargaining agreement.
- What happens with RAs and GRAs while the contract is being negotiated?
Penn would be obligated to maintain the “status quo”, which means that Penn generally cannot make unilateral changes to “terms of employment” until either Penn and the union reach agreement on the terms of a collective bargaining agreement or the parties reach a good faith impasse in bargaining. “Status quo” is also required to be maintained between when a union petition is filed and the election.
- Can RAs and GRAs see the proposed contract before deciding how to vote in the union election?
No, because there is no contract in place prior to the election. The election is about whether the union will represent the bargaining unit. Negotiations occur only if the vote is in favor of union representation, and the contract is the outcome of that negotiation.
- If an RA or GRA objects to a specific provision in a signed labor contract, are they still bound by it?
Yes. Collective bargaining does not allow individual members of the bargaining unit to opt out of specific rules. As the exclusive bargaining agent, the union speaks for all members in the bargaining unit on matters within its purview, and the contract is binding on all members.
- If Penn wanted to improve an RA or GRA student benefit covered by a collective bargaining agreement, would it be able to do so before the expiration of the contract?
No, not unless the contract granted Penn the flexibility to do so, or if the union consented to the change.
Union Dues and Representation
- Will RAs and GRAs have to pay membership dues to the union?
Under federal and Pennsylvania law, a union can require everyone in a bargaining unit to pay union dues or an agency fee (in an amount typically only slightly less than full membership dues). In many cases, dues and fees are mandatory. Unions also sometimes require the payment of a one-time initiation fee to the union.
- If a union is elected and is not successful in negotiating an agreement or RAs and GRAs are not happy with it, can RAs and GRAs simply dissolve it?
It is not easy to dissolve a union under federal law. Similar to forming a union, there is a formal process, called decertification, to remove or replace a union. To decertify a union, the bargaining unit would need to first collect signatures from at least 30% of bargaining unit members. Then it could file a decertification petition with the NLRB. Once the petition is filed, a decertification election would be held, and the outcome of that election would be determined by a simple majority of those who voted. The NLRB has guidelines in place for when this type of election can happen. Decertification elections are not allowed for one year following the union’s NLRB certification.
Background information: Unions and the Unionization Process
- What is a union?
A union is any organization or association of any kind in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers on wages, hours and other terms or conditions of employment.
- What is the NLRB?
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a federal agency created to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which is a federal law that protects the rights of employees and employers. The law protects the rights of employees to choose or reject union representation.
- Can students be represented by a union?
Only employees can be represented by a union. This means that a group of students can be represented by a union only if the NLRB determines that that group of students are statutory employees under the NLRA based on an analysis of the particular facts and circumstances.
- What would the impact be if the NLRB decided to treat students as employees for union representation purposes?
We are concerned that if the NLRB were to determine that a group of students (e.g., RAs and GRAs) are employees and the union wins the election, the University may be obligated to comply with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requirements for employment, which include completing the Form I-9 by providing proof of identity and authorization to work in the United States.
- How does a union come to represent a group of employees?
The first step in this process is that a minimum of thirty percent (30%) of employees in the group need to sign union authorization cards. The union can then file a petition with the NLRB, after which the NLRB will validate that the 30% threshold has been met.
- What is a union authorization card?
A union authorization card is a form signed by an employee to indicate their interest or support to join a union. A union must have signed union authorization cards from a minimum of thirty (30%) percent of the proposed unit in order to proceed with the petition and onto the election process.
- What happens if a union receives thirty (30%) percent or more of authorization cards and the NLRB validates the number of cards received?
Once validated the NLRB will address any legal issues related to the petition. The NLRB will then order an election if appropriate.
- How does signing an authorization card impact the ability to vote?
Those who have already signed authorization cards are not obligated to vote in favor of the union during the secret ballot election. Any eligible voter may vote for or against the union, regardless of whether they signed or did not sign an authorization card.
- Who can vote in a union election?
The NLRB will announce the appropriate unit for the election when it announces the date and location for the election. Any individual who is part of that unit based on the NRLB’s decision is eligible to vote.
- Who schedules the election?
The NLRB will schedule the date and location for a vote on whether employees want to be represented or not represented by a union.
- How is the outcome of a union election determined?
The outcome of an election is determined by a simple majority of those who vote. Even if only a small fraction of the unit votes, all individuals who are part of the unit are bound by the results. For example, if the unit is 100 individuals but only 15 vote, the outcome will be determined by those 15 people.
- If there is an election, who should vote?
Because the outcome of the election is binding on both voters and non-voters in the bargaining unit, it is important that all members of the bargaining unit vote.
- How is the voting done for a union election?
The voting process is overseen by the NLRB in accordance with very strict protocols. Individuals who are eligible to vote must arrive to the voting location during the designated time(s) on the designated day(s). The NLRB representative (or representatives of the parties) checks the voter list to ensure the person is on the list, and they are checked off. The person then proceeds to the voting booth and completes a paper ballot which is deposited in the ballot box. The ballot box remains secure at all times.
- Do people know how others voted?
No, voting is secret and is done via secret ballot to ensure that each individual’s vote remains private.