Grad student union effort gets boost from PLRB ruling


The Pitt graduate student unionization effort has been revitalized by a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board order for Pitt to host a new graduate student union election.

A ruling sent out on Sept. 18 and signed by Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmerich determined that the University of Pittsburgh used “unfair” and “coercive” tactics that resulted in graduate students voting to not unionize. 

University representatives immediately denied using any inappropriate tactics during the election.

“We just received the PLRB hearing examiner’s proposed ruling,” University spokesman Kevin Zwick said in an email. “Pitt acted appropriately throughout the election — where graduate students voted not to be represented by USW — and we strongly disagree with any suggestion to the contrary. We’ll review the proposed ruling and next steps.”

This comes after the union, represented by the United Steelworker, disputed the results of graduate student unionization election, which took place from April 12 to 18. The final vote tally had 675 votes in favor of the union with 712 votes against it.

But the PLRB found that some of Pitt’s tactics, primarily its messaging about what unionization would be able to achieve, contained “misstatements” that would “reasonably have an impact on the election because it was made in the middle of an extremely close election ….”

Specific examples of these misstatements could be found in the union’s exhibits during a May hearing.

Among these findings, Helmerich concluded that Pitt used “coercive” messaging in an email Steven Little, chair of Chemical Engineering at the Swanson School, sent April 17, 2019, according to the order.

The email read in part: “I just wanted to send you a note to encourage you to vote in the graduate student unionization election. The polling location is the O’Hara Student Center. I was actually a little surprised to see that only 81 students from the School of Engineering (whole school) have voted so far.”

Helmerich said he found this message to be an “unfair practice with the University … because it created the impression of close monitoring by the University by telling a number of graduate students that the university knew exactly who voted during the first two days of the election.

“In other words, the email from Little had the effect of expressing to the eligible voters in the Chemical Engineering department that their votes were under close scrutiny and observation by the management of the University, including the chair of their department, the author of the email,” Helmerich wrote.

He went on to say that the email suggested that University representatives were tracking voters by department during the election and shared that information with Little, and possibly others.

Union legal representatives further argued that Pitt used unfair practices on its official graduate student unionization Internet page in the Frequently Asked Questions section. 

The statement under scrutiny can be found in the “What Could Change as a Result of Collective Bargaining?” category after someone clicks on the “Will a union give students more say in how decisions about academic appointments are made?” tab.

“With a union, the University is not permitted to discuss academic appointments directly with students, and as a result, students lose the ability to have an individual say in their specific program when it comes to appointments,” the reply on the website read in part.

Helmerich wrote that this sentence was a “substantial departure from the truth, not carefully drawn, and not based on objective fact.”

“Nothing in the record supports the University’s definitive conclusion that graduate students within the bargaining unit would be prohibited from speaking directly to university agents about academic appointments,” Helmerich wrote.

Since this statement was on the website before and during the election, it prevented the union from making an effective rebuttal against this claim, Helmerich wrote.

Controversial chart

The union also disputed a chart on the University’s website on the “Collective Bargaining Basics” page, which showed what unions could and couldn’t bargain over.

Helmerich wrote that the charts’ statements “glaringly contain the following essential contradiction: the statements claim that the PLRB and Pennsylvania courts have never defined what constitutes bargainable working conditions in the case of graduate students while at the same time declaring definitively that certain broad and general topics such as ‘selection of students for academic appointments,’ ‘direction of students with academic appointments,’ ‘admissions decisions,’ and ‘academic requirements and academic decisions’ cannot be bargained.”

In addition, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Nathan Urban sent an email to eligible voters on April 4 that had claims similar to the chart, Helmerich wrote. Therefore, the email also contained similar issues.

The email, according to Helmerich, “definitively claims” that a union couldn’t bargain over “admissions decisions,” “selection of students for academic appointments,” or “class assignments” while simultaneously claiming that the PLRB and Pennsylvania courts haven’t defined what’s covered under “working conditions” for graduate students.

The examiner found both the chart and the email to be “misstatements” that would “grossly impact” the election and coerce voters.

As a result of the order, Pitt will have to stop “interfering, restraining or coercing” voters; post a copy of the PLRB’s decision in an accessible place for at least 10 days; and provide the PLRB with enough evidence that it complied to these requests within 20 days.

It’s not clear when the new election will be held.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.