Faculty and grad student unionization efforts continue to make waves on campus


Unionization continues to be a major topic of discussion on campus as faculty and grad students question the University’s union information websites and the hiring of a law firm used by other state-related institutions that have faced unionization efforts.

In a Senate Council meeting on Sept. 12, Rachel Coombs, Graduate and Professional Student Council president, said graduate and professional students are concerned with the University hiring Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based law firm.

According to its website, the law firm offers clients “union avoidance training and counseling” and knows “how to help clients maintain a union-free environment” among many other legal services.

“We're very concerned about the cost of this and how many of our shared university resources are being used to impede the graduate students’ right to have a vote to decide if they want to unionize,” Coombs said.

The University did not respond to questions about the costs of hiring the law firm and whether funding for legal services would be taken from student tuition dollars, but did provide a statement.

“The University occasionally seeks expert advice about issues that affect students, faculty and staff,” said Joe Miksch, the University’s spokesman. “Given the importance of this issue, and its potential impact on the University and its students, we believe that the responsible course of action is to engage experts in labor law. Therefore, we have hired Ballard Spahr.”

This comes after presentations at the Faculty Assembly on Sept. 4 from representatives of the Union of Pitt Faculty. Representatives cited personal struggles with low pay and job insecurity as some of the reasons they support a union. Graduate students also say their working conditions could improve with the help of a union.

Pitt’s new Provost Ann E. Cudd, also told new faculty on Aug. 27, that she was “not really clear on what the need would be” for unionization.

There have been other recent graduate student unionization movements in Pennsylvania.

Penn State and The University of Pennsylvania also hired Ballard Spahr following graduate student unionization efforts. Ultimately graduate students at Penn State voted in April to not unionize, and at Penn, graduate students withdrew their petition in February to vote for a union.

In response to the unionization efforts on campus, Pitt has created two websites dedicated to answering questions about graduate student and faculty unionization.

The website for graduate student unionization made the University’s position very clear: “The University is not in favor of graduate student unionization because we do not believe that having a graduate student union would help us provide the best educational opportunities for our students.”

Pitt believes that graduate students “should be treated as students, not as employees, for the benefit of both the students and the University.”

“Graduate students come to the University to get an education and to prepare for future careers, not to take a job,” the website continued. “The University’s mission and responsibility are to provide graduate students with the opportunity to get a world-class education. We define our success in this by the accomplishments of our students.

“We are proud of our graduate programs and of the alumni of these programs. We see unionization as potentially distracting from our mission of educating students and disrupting our ability to offer the tailored and individualized programs that we think are critical for making our students as successful as possible.”

In a September email update, the Union of Pitt Faculty pushed back on the University’s website on faculty unionization, citing claims it said were “factually inaccurate.”

According to the “Your Questions Answered” section of the University’s website, if there is a union election, faculty would have to join the union even if they didn’t vote for it.

The Union of Pitt Faculty said this isn’t the case, citing the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 and the Janus Decision from earlier this year.

The Taft-Hartley Act and a later interpretation in 1988 got rid of compulsory union membership, according to the Union of Pitt Faculty, and the Janus Decision prevents non-members from being charged a fee for the services of public-sector unions.

“A faculty union will protect the rights of all faculty — members and non-members alike,” the email update read.

When asked about the Union of Pitt Faculty’s pushback, Miksch reiterated that faculty would have to join.

“Faculty have asked whether they would be subject to the provisions of a union contract even if they didn't join a union,” Miksch said in an email. “The answer to this question is yes. If there were a union, all employees in the bargaining unit, which would be proposed by the union subject to the approval of the (Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board) would be governed by the negotiated terms of that union contract. Faculty could not opt out of the contract.”

There are hearings scheduled for the first week of October that will decide whether or not graduate students can vote for a union. A hearing examiner from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board will make the decision.

The Union of Pitt Faculty is still in the process of collecting anonymous cards. If it manages to collect cards from 30 percent of the bargaining unit, the Pennsylvania labor relations board would hold a secret ballot election. If a majority votes to negotiate with Pitt, then Pitt would be obligated by law to negotiate.

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