Administration, faculty union organizers dispute size of bargaining unit


The Union of Pitt Faculty is butting heads with University administration after the University presented legal arguments disputing the size of the union’s proposed bargaining unit in a pre-hearing teleconference.

During the call on March 1, the University argued that the School of Medicine, which comprises roughly 3,600 faculty, according to the University, should be included in the faculty union’s main bargaining unit.

The University also argued that some members of the proposed bargaining unit can be classified as supervisors, which, Provost Ann Cudd said, could create a conflict of interest.

In the past, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations board decided that the School of Medicine had a bargaining unit of its own.

However, this bargaining unit has essentially been inactive, Cudd said, leading the University to file a petition to have the bargaining unit in the medical school decertified.

“It hasn’t been active in any way in decades,” Cudd said. “And we reached out to faculty members who we knew of who ad ever been active and received limited responses from them because they’re all retired.

“And so, in effect, they don’t have a union and never really had. It never bargained with the University, never sought to bargain with the University. And so, the idea that they would be excluded from the bargaining unit seemed to us to be inconsistent with the overall goal of the unionization effort, which is to represent all of the faculty.”

It’s unclear how long the decertification process could take as it’s ultimately up to the hearing examiner to decide the scope of the bargaining unit, Cudd said.

In a Facebook statement on March 1, the faculty union lambasted Pitt’s administration and Ballard Spahr, the law firm Pitt hired for the unionization process, for these moves.

“Needless to say, we oppose both of these disingenuous and obstructionist moves.” the post read. “We are disappointed that the administration has decided to adopt these anti-union legal tactics, rather than remaining neutral and letting the faculty decide for themselves whether or not to form a union.”

“I think there were a number of reasons why the Labor Board excluded the med school in the past,” said Tyler Bickford, a member of the organizing committee for the union and associate professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English. “One was that the med school had already been certified as its own bargaining unit. And also there’s good arguments to make that the faculty in the med school have meaningfully different working conditions. … I think everyone involved in this campaign thinks that the faculty in the School of Medicine absolutely should have a right to make a decision for themselves, whether they’d like to organize a union, and we would support them if they wanted to do that as a unit of medical faculty.”

The faculty union submitted signed cards in January to the Pennsylvania labor board in Harrisburg, which was considered to be a huge step for the group.

The proposed bargaining unit — all faculty at all ranks, excluding the School of Medicine — is based on a PLRB ruling on Pitt from 1990, according to the United Steelworkers Union, which is representing the faculty union. It would cover roughly 3,500 people.

Pitt’s legal representation has created a list of people in the bargaining unit who could be considered “managers” or “supervisors,” which include deans and department chairs. The exact number of people on the list was not immediately available.

“So, anyone who is managing, who is setting terms and conditions of employment can’t also be in the unit that’s the collective bargaining unit, right?” Cudd said. “That wouldn’t make sense, that’d be a conflict of interest in effect, right? So that decision has to be made somehow.”

Cudd said classification also can be confusing as faculty frequently move in and out of “manager” positions.

“Now, it seems obvious to me having been a faculty member now for 30-plus years, that department chairs count as supervisors, they write evaluations, they make recommendations for salary, they often schedule classes, where you’re going to teach,” Cudd said. “Well those all sound like terms and conditions of employment to me, but that’s just a normal practice every day of faculty life.

The faculty union condemned this idea in the statement, saying that Pitt administrators are “aiming to place chairs in an adversarial relationship with their own colleagues by making chairs simply an arm of the administration.”

Cudd pushed back on this, saying that Pitt administrators don’t want to create an adversarial situation.

“So, the idea that was proposed in (the union statement) that administration is trying to set up an adversarial relationship between department chairs and their faculty, I think is mistaken on a couple of counts,” Cudd said. “One, I think, naturally, we would propose that they are supervisors and managers. And then secondly, even though that’s the case, they’re faculty colleagues, there’s not an adversarial relationship just because you’re evaluating another faculty member, we evaluate each other all the time.”

Bickford, who said he was on the teleconference call on March 1, dismissed the University’s actions as a series of “union-busting techniques.”

“I think, from our perspective, this is mostly just kind of about procedurally, sort of delaying the process, trying to come up with different things that they can argue about to slow down the process and to kind of keep it with the lawyers for longer,” Bickford said. “Our preference would be to move forward to an election as quickly as possible, again, which is why we’re working on this existing precedent.”

Bickford also pointed to the fact that Ballard Spahr wrote on its website that it offers clients “union avoidance training and counseling” and knows “how to help clients maintain a union-free environment” among its many other legal services.

“The University is hiring these lawyers and using these delaying tactics … I think is very clear evidence that they are sort of full in on an anti-union effort, which ... they haven’t committed to that publicly, I think, until now.”

Bickford added that it’s not the union’s goal to have an “artificial division” of supervisors where faculty are essentially divided into “bosses and workers.”

“I think the sentiment among the people involved in the union effort is that we want to have, you know, a bigger unit,” Bickford said. “And I think also, the supervisory question, again, is just a kind of delaying tactic. Because faculty do have pretty complicated jobs. And in many cases (we are) in positions where we’re running a program or directing something, but we’re certainly not true managers.

“So, the process of actually fact finding and sorting out exactly who is supervisory and who’s not in a big institution like this, where the faculty have a wide range of jobs, it’s … another thing that they can use to really slow down the process if they want to.”

Cudd said the administration’s goal is to make sure that faculty feel supported after whatever decision is ultimately made.

“But we do think that the way that they govern themselves will be very importantly affected by what happens with a union vote that introduces a different negotiation or procedure of governance within a University,” Cudd said. “And the faculty really needs to decide how they want that to go. Academic institutions are basically governed by faculty.”

Hearings have not been scheduled yet as the unionization process is still in its early phases. However, Bickford said he’s hoping there will be a hearing in late spring or early summer.

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