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February 4, 2016

Unionization drive launched

The United Steelworkers (USW) officially launched an organizing campaign at Pitt last week, although efforts to garner support for a faculty union have been quietly underway for months. (See Oct. 29 University Times.)

With a panel of faculty and student supporters, the USW in a Jan. 26 news conference detailed plans to organize approximately 5,000 full- and part-time faculty across all Pitt campuses.
As many as 3,000 Pitt graduate student employees, including teaching assistants, teaching fellows, research assistants and lab techs, would form a second bargaining group.

Organizers have yet to announce a timetable for soliciting union authorization cards that would precede a petition to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) for an election. The PLRB requires that 30 percent of a group sign authorization cards before an election can be requested, but organizers traditionally secure a much higher percentage of signed cards before requesting that an election be held.

Hillary Lazar, graduate student in sociology, speaks at the Jan. 26 press conference announcing the official launch of a United Steelworkers campaign to organize Pitt faculty and graduate student employees.

Hillary Lazar, graduate student in sociology, speaks at the Jan. 26 press conference announcing the official launch of a United Steelworkers campaign to organize Pitt faculty and graduate student employees.

USW spokesperson Maria Somma said, “This is the official kickoff. We have had a lot of meetings and preparation and have spoken to hundreds of the graduate employees and faculty members on campus.

“We have not kicked off card signing. We don’t intend to yet. That time will come. Right now we’re still wanting to have people come speak to us to make sure this is a viable campaign,” Somma said.
“We’re looking for as much support out there from as many of the graduate employees or the faculty members as possible. We’d like to do this as quickly as possible.”

Past attempts to unionize Pitt faculty — most recently in 1996 — have failed. Faculty organizers say times are different now. “Conditions in the University have changed significantly,” English faculty member Peter Campbell said. “It’s not just the University of Pittsburgh, but universities across the United States. Increasing trends toward corporatization and privatization of higher education, I think, make faculty very concerned — not just about our working conditions but the fundamental need to have a collective voice in what our working conditions are.

“I think there is significant support across the University that operates differently than it did in previous campaigns.”

He added, “We are organizing with the support of the United Steelworkers who have been involved in the movement around the city of Pittsburgh. So we’re joining a massive groundswell of support in the region. We’re building off that support and we hope to continue that support. That’s also very different from previous campaigns.”

USW represents part-time instructors at Point Park and Robert Morris universities. Adjunct faculty at Duquesne University voted to join the USW, but the Catholic university is challenging the election.

Ken Service, Pitt vice chancellor for communications, commented on the organizing efforts here: “The University has made great strides over the past decades, thanks in large measure to the ability of an independent and engaged faculty to work together with their administrative colleagues through a strong system of shared governance.

“We remain confident that the best way to continue to advance our mission is for the entire University community to continue to work together in this cooperative and respectful manner.”

Assistant professor Campbell, graduate student employee Hillary Lazar and undergraduate Kai Pang expressed their support for union representation during the Jan. 26 news conference.
Said Campbell: “We think our union can achieve four major goals for faculty and other workers in the Pitt community: fairness; job security; transparency; and workplace justice.

“The purpose of this University is teaching and research. We, alongside our graduate employee colleagues, are the workers who fulfill this purpose.

“Our unions can help achieve a University of Pittsburgh that guarantees all faculty fair compensation, benefits and recognition for our work. A University that rejects contingency in employment so that faculty of any rank — part-time, non-tenure stream, tenure stream — should not fear termination or non-renewal of contracts without cause or due process,” he said.

“Our unions can help us achieve a University-wide and departmental culture characterized by available, timely, explicit and enforceable policies and procedures for all matters related to our employment. Our unions can provide us with the independence and effective means to advocate for ourselves and our colleagues when we are fired without notice or cause and when we experience racial, sexual, gender-based and other forms of discrimination,” he said.

“By forming a union we can work collectively with the University administration to design effective and inclusive policies that help us be the best researchers and teachers we can be. We hope they’ll support us and work with us in our organizing efforts.”

Hillary Lazar, a graduate student employee in sociology, said: “We contribute to the excellent teaching and research and scholarship here at the University of Pittsburgh — something that we are proud of, but we deserve to be recognized for our indispensable roles and to be legally guaranteed a fair workplace in which to perform them.

“By joining a union we’re joining a national movement of graduate student workers and university employees, including tenured faculty and part-time instructors who are demanding that we are recognized for our essential contributions and are treated accordingly,” Lazar said.

“We’re asserting that with a union we can create and maintain a democratic workplace, we can ensure fair working conditions and compensation, we can ensure our legal right to collective bargaining. And by working with the Steelworkers, with a track record of success, we are in a far better position to be able to make these goals a reality.”

Lazar said everyone — not just the graduate student workers — at Pitt needs the union. “Everybody at Pitt needs this union, because our working conditions impact the learning conditions of our students, the quality of our research and, frankly, the strength and position of Pitt as a world-class institution,” Lazar said.

Senior Kai Pang, who is studying philosophy and economics, said he is supporting the graduate students and faculty in their efforts to organize “because their working conditions are my learning conditions.”

He said: “The foundation of this institution is the learning that goes on in classrooms. Pitt could not exist without its students nor its teachers. And we all benefit from Pitt being the best institution it can be. As a soon-to-be graduate potentially considering graduate school in the future, it is very important to me that places of higher education are democratic and about people, not profit.

“The University does not exist in a vacuum,” Pang said. “We must think about the larger implications of what kind of society we are creating. I want a society where people have a say in the workplace, employees are treated with respect and dignity, and academics have a voice in what the future of higher education looks like.”

Organizing committee details are posted at and

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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