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April 27, 1995

United Faculty kicks off campaign

The United Faculty of the University of Pittsburgh (UF) has taken the first step in a new drive to unionize Pitt faculty.

At an April 26 press conference, UF leaders launched a campaign to get eligible faculty members to sign cards authorizing the United Faculty to represent them in collective bargaining.

The UF lost Pitt's last faculty union election in 1991. But leaders of the faculty organization say they remain convinced that only a fundamental change in Pitt's governance structure — best achieved through collective bargaining, they argue — will give faculty clout in University decision-making.

UF President Mark Ginsburg said: "If faculty feel that they have a real voice, that they are being taken seriously and treated with dignity, that they can dialogue with the administration and trustees on a level playing field, then we believe the academic community can be strengthened." Philip Wion, UF treasurer and past president, said faculty were reminded of how little control they currently have over their professional lives and Pitt's future by the administration's decision to drop HealthAmerica and make Blue Cross the sole provider of employee health insurance here. The decision was made against the advice of Senate Council, the Medical Review Committee and other "traditional" governance groups, Wion noted.

"The bottom line is, the administration is free to do whatever it likes, to even ignore the recommendations" of existing faculty governance groups, said Wion, an associate professor of English.

United Faculty leaders said collective bargaining will raise faculty morale and enable professors to strengthen Pitt's academic standing and help deal with such problems as enrollment shortfalls, uncertainty over the University's future brought on by Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor's resignation announcement, threats to academic freedom, fund-raising difficulties, staff cuts at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and pressure from trustees for corporate-style "downsizing." UF President Ginsburg said faculty can expect to begin receiving authorization cards in office mail boxes this week. UF members also plan to make individual visits and phone calls to faculty from now through the fall, he said.

About 1,700 full-time and 600 part-time faculty, including faculty librarians, at all Pitt schools and campuses except the School of Medicine make up the bargaining unit and are eligible to sign.

If 30 percent of those 2,300 faculty members sign the authorization cards, UF will petition the state labor relations board to hold a secret ballot election here.

If more than 50 percent of voting faculty were to support the United Faculty in the election, UF would win the right to represent non-medical faculty in collective bargaining.

Ginsburg, a professor of Administrative and Policy Studies in the education school, said the UF intends to surpass the 30 percent minimum response necessary for a successful card-signing campaign. "We're planning to collect enough signatures that we feel confident we will win the election," he said. "This is not an attempt just to hold the election. This is an attempt to win it." That goal eluded the United Faculty and its precursor organization in two previous unionization attempts. The first effort to unionize faculty here, in 1976, fell short of a majority in a run-off election. The United Faculty lost the 1991 election by a vote of 1,243-719.

UF leaders said they faced a number of handicaps in the 1991 election: * The administration had just announced 7.5 percent faculty salary raises for the following year.

* Then-President Wesley Posvar had recently announced his resignation and many professors wanted to wait and see how Pitt would fare under his successor.

* Anti-union mailings from the University administration played upon fears that faculty unionization here would lead to a damaging faculty strike like the one at Temple University in 1990.

* The election was complicated by a seven-year legal battle in which administrative attempts to have Pitt faculty declared "managers" (and therefore ineligible to unionize) were ultimately rejected by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) in a November 1990 ruling. The UF and the administration agreed that the union issue should be resolved before finalists for the job of President Posvar's successor were interviewed, so the election was held by mail ballot in late February and early March 1991. UF leaders said the timing did not allow a thorough discussion of complex election issues.

[In 1987, when a PLRB hearing examiner temporarily declared full-time faculty ineligible, a union election was held among part-time faculty. A majority of the part-timers voted for the UF, but the vote became moot when the full PLRB restored full-time faculty to the bargaining unit.] The launching of UF's new campaign isn't ideally timed, Ginsburg said. Many faculty members are frantic this week with final exams and papers; most will be gone from Pitt next month or even all summer.

But Chancellor O'Connor's recent announcement that he will resign at the end of the 1995-96 academic year (or sooner, if a replacement is found before then) convinced the United Faculty to push for a card-signing campaign as soon as possible.

In response to suggestions that UF leaders were being "opportunistic" in taking advantage of current faculty dissatisfaction with the administration, Ginsburg said, "We see this as a positive opportunity" — a chance to discuss unionization issues without focusing on O'Connor or any other individual. "The issue isn't a change in administration," he said. "The issue for us is, what kind of University can the faculty come together to build?" Ginsburg said that he and other United Faculty officials received dozens of requests from non-UF faculty for sign-up cards in the wake of O'Connor's resignation announcement and the Blue Cross-HealthAmerica decision. This week's card campaign launching was partly a response to those requests, he said.

United Faculty leaders say they will emphasize the advantages of faculty diversity and avoid the divisiveness that they believe hurt their 1991 campaign. In that election, Ginsburg said, some full-time faculty were led to believe that their interests ran counter to those of part-timers; arts and sciences professors were pitted against faculty in the professional schools; regional campus faculty feared that the Pittsburgh campus stood to gain more from a union, etc. "This time, we want to avoid being divided and conquered," Ginsburg said.

UF officials said they hope Pitt's administration will not seek to block a union election.

In an interview yesterday, Chancellor O'Connor told the University Times that the administration "absolutely" is planning an informational campaign against the UF but has no plans to take legal action.

"I think the existence of a faculty union would be deleterious to the University of Pittsburgh in a substantial way. I can't think of anything more devastating to the quality of higher education" than faculty unionization, O'Connor said.

David Pratt, a chemistry professor who was a member of the Teachers for an Independent Faculty group that opposed unionization during the UF's 1991 campaign, said he hopes anti-union faculty again will band together to fight the United Faculty. "I'm not sure I would want to get involved in such a group myself, but I still believe in opposing [faculty] unionization at any cost," Pratt said.

— Bruce Steele

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