Latest PLRB ruling leaves only small window for grad student union


The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board struck a major blow to the graduate student unionization effort in an order that calls for legal representatives of the University of Pittsburgh and grad student union to review challenge ballots from the April 2019 union election.

The order from the PLRB, issued on Aug. 21, dismissed exceptions filed by the United Steelworkers, who represent the faculty and graduate student unionization efforts on campus, and “partially dismissed and upheld” parts of the University’s exceptions filed to a previous decision.

Both parties had been disputing communications made before and during the graduate student election, which the union narrowly lost with 675 votes in favor of the union and 712 votes against it.

The union later claimed that the University used unfair labor practices during the election, and a PLRB hearing examiner sided with the union last fall. The University filed exceptions to that decision. The full board dismissed exceptions from the union on several of the communications from Nathan Urban, then-vice provost for graduate studies, and on a University-maintained website.

A PLRB hearing examiner previously concluded that an email Steven Little, chair of Chemical Engineering at the Swanson School, sent April 17, 2019. used “coercive” messaging. 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.”

The board agreed that this statement “would have the tendency to coerce graduate assistants in going to the polls or for whom to cast their secret ballot in the election,” according to the order. There were 34 chemical engineering students who voted after this email.

Planned oral arguments between the union and the University over this and other election issues were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the PLRB relied on briefs that both parties previously filed to make its most recent decision.

After reviewing the briefs, the board said it would dismiss exceptions from the USW, and partially dismiss and sustain exceptions filed by the University.

Now, a hearing examiner must determine the validity of 11 of the 14 challenged ballots in the election. If these ballots are found to be in favor of the union, then the 34 votes after Little’s email could have affected the outcome of the election. But if not, then the election results would stand.

Union representatives said this decision was “disappointing,” and that the union is considering different legal options. However, this decision will not affect organizing efforts among grad students.

“We did not anticipate it,” said Hillary Lazar, a USW-affiliated graduate student. “But I guess for me, what’s more critical to think about, and to underscore, is the fact that regardless of this decision, that this in no way is actually going to impact our organizing. There’s no way that we’re going to stop working to build grad worker power.”

A statement from the University said: "We are gratified that the PLRB found that the University’s communications were appropriate, and we will continue to follow their guidelines as this process moves forward. A hearing has been scheduled for September 25 on whether 11 contested ballots should be counted. However, the union has notified the University and the hearing examiner that it intends to file an appeal of the PLRB decision in Commonwealth Court, so that hearing is likely to be delayed."

As for the faculty unionization effort, legal representatives from the University and the Union are still trying to determine an appropriate list of employees in the proposed faculty union bargaining unit. A statement from the University said that hearings are scheduled over the next two months on remaining questions about which faculty should be included in any bargaining unit, including whether School of Medicine faculty should be excluded, as the union seeks.

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


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