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September 14, 2017

Graduate Student Unionization Effort Brings Varying Perspectives

As a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, Ben Case examines the dichotomy of violence and nonviolence in social movements. Beth Shaaban, a fifth-year PhD candidate in epidemiology in the Graduate School of Public Health, researches how healthy brain aging can be promoted.

While their academic paths take them in different directions, Case and Shaaban share a goal: to establish a union for University of Pittsburgh graduate students.

Student organizers say stipends and benefits provided by the University do not cover their living expenses and graduate students don’t have the voice they deserve for the value they provide to the University. University officials and others say the graduate student experience is an academic journey that focuses on mentoring and career development and that waived tuition, benefits and stipends provided to students are competitive with other universities.

Since February, the Pitt Graduate Student Organizing Committee, of which Case and Shaaban are members, has been trying to collect union authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the graduate student population to conduct a vote to join the United Steelworkers union.

The signed cards would allow the union to act as an intermediary between the students as a collective and the University to negotiate compensation, benefits and working conditions.

The committee members believe that a union could help graduate students assert their perspectives in administrative decisions such as determining stipends and health insurance coverage. Both Case and Shaaban referenced concerns about transparency between the administration and graduate students.

“A lot of the decisions that impact graduate students’ lives, specifically when it comes to work assignments and funding, are completely opaque,” said Case. “The work we do is often part of our training as grad students, but it is also work that makes the University run. In addition to being fairly compensated for it, we deserve a seat at the table when it comes to the decisions that affect our lives.”

This week, a group of graduate students participating in the efforts to organize gathered to deliver to the Office of the Chancellor seven signed letters from public officials, among them U.S. Senator Bob Casey and U.S. Representative Mike Doyle. The letters ask that University administration remain neutral in its actions related to the graduate student and faculty unionization campaigns and to avoid using public funds or tuition dollars on what can be perceived as anti-union resources.

Reid Andrews, who works closely with graduate students, is familiar with their concerns. A distinguished professor in the Department of History, Andrews said that a union could help to improve their compensation, easing the process of the University competing for graduate students.

A union, said Andrews, could also impact the graduate students’ work. Shaaban mentioned that she does not know many graduate students who only work their contractually agreed upon number of hours. For graduate student researchers, that number is 20 hours per week, according to the researchers’ contracts, Shaaban said. Her hope, she said, is that a union could address issues in what she identifies as “time theft.”

Dennis Galletta noted a different motivation for many students and the importance of the student-mentor relationship as the director of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business’ doctoral program, the Ben L. Fryrear Faculty Fellow and professor of business administration.

“After working with many doctoral students on research projects over the past 32 years at Pitt, it is apparent to me that the primary concern of those students is to publish joint research, taking advantage of our mentoring style of collaboration. Their long-term goal is to obtain a research-oriented position at a highly ranked university,” said Galletta.

“The University benefits on several internal and external performance evaluations when they publish with us and reach that long-term goal. Because that is a shared goal, their success is the same as our success,” he added.

In general, Galletta thinks that unions are important in some fields of work, such as factories. He does not, though, consider doctoral programs among those fields. A union, said Galletta, would deflect attention from research that, when published, helps these students to secure positions in academia.

The stipends for Katz PhD students, he said, are above average compared to PhD stipends at other U.S. business schools. He said that these students can afford a modest car and apartment with their stipends.

Stipends at Pitt range from $7,530 to $10,545 per term, which were increased 3 percent this academic year and have risen by 13.7 percent over the last five years. Students also receive free tuition and health benefits.

Paul Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, said the package still leaves students short financially.

“For any graduate student with professional aspirations, their weeks are filled with writing, revision, reading and teaching. This is not to mention conference travel, which is expected but not consistently supported with financial heft by departments,” said Johnson. “Because they are at an elite university, the demands made on graduate students at Pitt are immense. Imagine all that pressure and being worried about making rent or concerned about making it to the food bank before it closes because you’re out of grocery money for the month two weeks in.”

Johnson, who received his PhD in communication studies from the University of Iowa in 2013, began his studies there soon after a newly formed graduate student union had negotiated its first contract. He is involved in the efforts to unionize Pitt faculty.

In July, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson sent graduate students a letter that outlined the University’s perspective regarding graduate student unionization. The letter directed students to a website that provides information on union basics and an overview of graduate student benefits and resources, including health insurance, parental accommodations, pedagogical training and career services.

In the letter, Beeson said, “I feel the unique relationship graduate students have with their faculty, departments, and schools is not well suited to representation by a union.”

This position has found a proponent in the Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) and its president, Christopher Staten. Staten, who is in the second year of his master’s degree program, is studying marketing and entrepreneurship at Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.

While GPSG encourages graduate students to share their opinions, the organization believes that the Office of the Provost is invested in the best interests of graduate students, said Staten. He thinks that further discussion between graduate students and administrators would accomplish the graduate students’ objectives better than union involvement.

Nathan Urban said that he is making efforts to facilitate this discussion. Urban, vice provost for graduate studies and strategic initiatives, is reaching out to graduate student organizations from all the schools to better understand student concerns.

“The student-mentor relationship is at the core of the success of graduate education at Pitt,” said Urban. “Each graduate student has a unique path, unique roles and unique educational needs that both shape and are shaped by the student-mentor relationship. I don’t believe that relationship is strengthened when it is mediated by a third party such as a union.”

Both Shaaban and Case said that organizers anticipate having the required amount of authorization cards before the semester’s end. Once this happens, the United Steelworkers can request that the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hold an election in which graduate students can vote for the formation of a union.


Katie Fike,, 412-624-1085


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 2

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