By SUSAN JONES
As the election for a graduate student union approaches, tension and rhetoric are ramping up on both sides.
Nowhere was that more evident than at an information session on March 26. Nathan Urban, vice provost for graduate studies, answered questions submitted online or written on notecards by those attending, while students in the audience repeatedly voiced their displeasure at not being able to speak at the forum. About 60 people attended the event.
Both the administration and the union are urging everyone in the bargaining unit to vote April 15 to 18. Those eligible should have received emails from Nathan Urban’s office.
The union organizing committee plans to have tables set up over the next couple of weeks with information, including from 1 to 3 p.m. April 4 at Hillman Library and 1 to 3 p.m. April 9 in front of Chevron Science Center, along with other areas the weeks of April 8 and 15.
Voting will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the following locations:
April 15-16: Posvar Hall, Posvar Suites, Second Floor
April 17-18: O’Hara Ballroom, Second Floor
Results from the election are not expected until April 26.
“The University has a viewpoint. We have concerns that unionization would not be in the interest of students and the University,” Urban said. “Whatever happens in this process, the University is committed to graduate education. That’s the most important thing to remember from my perspective.”
After the meeting, Caitlin Schroering, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and a member of the union organizing committee, said students also were upset that many of the questions submitted on cards were not addressed, particularly those about what the University is paying the law firm Ballard Spahr to advise it on union issues.
“The manner in which that meeting was run reflects their attitude toward grad students,” Schroering said. “Not letting us speak is extremely paternalistic. … there was a lot of anger and frustration in that room.”
At the forum, moderator Vivian Curran, a professor in the School of Law, pointedly said, “This evening is not a debate. It is an opportunity for grad students to learn more about the process of unionization.”
Meanwhile, the graduate student union organizing committee was sharing its own information in handouts titled “Union Buster Bingo,” which contained statements the committee says are myths the Pitt administration is using to fight the union.
Schroering said one of her key complaints is that, “Nate Urban is trying to create doubts and fear for grad students by creating a sense that nothing is certain and it’s all a mystery.”
Both the administration and the organizing committee have websites set up to answer questions about the election process and what a union on campus would mean. The administration site also has a video of Urban’s presentation last week.
Bargaining unit and dues
Determining who would be able to vote for a union and be covered by a union contract were key issues in question at last fall’s Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing, and many still seemed to be confused by who is in the bargaining unit and what that means.
The PLRB ruled that the bargaining unit includes teaching assistants, teaching fellows, grad student assistants and grad student researchers. Urban said it was unusual for grad unions to include GSRs. Left out of the unit were fellows (those working under an individual fellowship grant) and trainees (who are supported by an institutional training grant).
Everyone in the bargaining unit would be covered by any future contract, Urban said, even if they are not dues-paying members of the union. The administration had argued that “students are students” and should all be included in the union, especially because many grad students transition between different roles, such as GSRs to fellows and back to GSAs, during the course of their graduate career.
Urban said students who are currently not in the bargaining unit but know they will be in the near future when they transition into one of the covered areas cannot vote in the election. There is an appeal process after the election for either side to dispute exceptions.
One question asked was if the University and union could negotiate separate agreements for each group, such as TAs and GSRs.
“Pennsylvania labor law … favors large and inclusive bargaining units, so there will be one contract, which is specified,” Urban said. “Certainly, there might be provisions within that contract that deal with subsets of students in different areas. That will all be subject to the collective bargaining process. … The challenging thing is that there’s no information that can be made available at this point about how that process will work.”
He said it could take a year or more between voting to have a union and finalizing any collective bargaining agreement.
Under the law, members of the bargaining unit do not need to be part of the union or pay dues, but it may affect their ability to vote on a bargaining committee or contract ratification, Urban said.
While Urban said he didn’t know what the dues would be, the union website spells out that they would be 1.45 percent of a person’s gross wages, plus 2 cents per hour (which translates to 40 cents for all grad students on a typical 20 hour per week stipend).
The union’s information also says that no one can be forced to go on strike, even if the union votes for a strike. The union said it would discourage graduate student employees from participating in a strike if it would harm their research or compromise their visa status.
Many of the questions at the forum centered around stipends for grad student employees, and if a union would cause the stipends to decrease or be uniform across all departments.
Urban said that while he doesn’t think any decreases are likely, “that’s not up to me; that’s not up to the University. That’s a part of the collective bargaining process.”
A student in the audience shouted out that in most cases where unions have been approved, stipends have gone up.
One card from the audience questioned the bias of a question on the administration’s website about whether a contract would make all stipends the same across campus. The card went on to say this situation is rare and would have to be voted on.
Urban replied that at Temple University, the only other school in Pennsylvania with a grad union, the president of the union wants to standardize stipends, but he did agree it was something students would need to vote on.
Most students who receive funding from NSF or NIH are classified as pre-doctoral fellows, Urban said, and are not in the bargaining unit.
One question asked if Pitt could guarantee that stipends wouldn’t drop, to which Urban said it wasn’t possible for the University to guarantee anything, since it will all be dealt with in contract negotiations.
The questioner also cited a rumored University surplus of $85 million surplus and asked if the union could force Pitt to use that money instead of taking from other departments.
Urban said he wasn’t sure what the monetary figure referred to, but it was possible they meant a recent $85 million surplus in the operating budget. That money was used to support infrastructure, maintenance and building renovations, he said. Traditionally, the money for maintenance and any of the new construction proposed in the campus master plan comes from the operating budget surplus, he said. “It’s not profit.”
Other questions at the forum asked how students could have their voices heard without the union and if the union could force the University to improve Title IX services. To hear the questions and answers first hand, go to the video here.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.