Graduate student union election set for week of April 15


Shortly after the University Times published on March 21, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board announced the dates for a graduate student union election on Pitt’s Oakland campus, which will take place the week of April 15.

Initially, University administrators proposed Benedum Hall or the Biomedical Science Tower as the voting locations — which union representatives called an attempt at “voter suppression.”

Union representatives then suggested that the William Pitt Union would be a better location to host the vote. Instead, the University and union representatives have agreed on different venues to host the elections.

Voting will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the following locations:

  • April 15: Posvar Hall, Posvar Suites, Second Floor
  • April 16: Posvar Hall, Posvar Suites, Second Floor
  • April 17: O’Hara Ballroom, Second Floor
  • April 18: O’Hara Ballroom, Second Floor

Information Session

The University administration will host an information session with Vice Provost Nathan Urban to answer questions about unionization and the election process from 5:15-6:30 p.m. March 26 at David Lawrence Hall, Room 120.


The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the Pitt Graduate Student Union on March 7, which will give roughly 2,000 graduate students the chance to vote to join a union. But the union and University administrators disagree on the voting location.

In a press release sent out March 7, the United Steelworkers, who represent the Graduate Student Union, lauded the PLRB’s decision. The students eligible to vote, according to the University include teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants and graduate student researchers.

“Pitt’s grad students work hard as teachers and as researchers, providing valuable services to the university,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard, said in the release. “They are absolutely employees and deserve a seat at the table.”

The hearing examiner determined that graduate students are employees under Pennsylvania’s Public Employe Relations Act, or PARA.

The decision comes after graduate students initially filed for a union election in December 2017, citing poor working conditions and calling for more transparency, according to the release.

There were several hearings that took place in October and November with personal accounts from Pitt students, administrators and more. Full transcripts of the hearing and the PLRB’s ruling are available through the Pitt Graduate Union website.

When Hillary Lazar, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, and other members found out about the PLRB’s decision, they were “thrilled.”

“I’ve been working for Pitt since I came to the University seven years ago, and I’ve taught over 11 classes and I’ve taught over 1,200 students,” said Lazar, who is a founding member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and has been involved with the unionization efforts since the beginning. “So for me, there’s no question that my role in the University is that of an employee.”

University response

Pitt has said in the past that it is “not in favor” of graduate student unionization. And following the ruling, the University sent out a statement it was “disappointed by the decision and (is) evaluating our options going forward.”

“We will prepare a list of eligible voters who are in these groups based on their appointments for the spring semester,” Pitt spokesman Joe Miksch said in an email. “Representatives of the University of Pittsburgh, the United Steelworkers, and the PLRB will determine when the election will occur and where voting will take place. We encourage all eligible students to be fully informed on this important issue — and to vote and make their voices heard when the election occurs.”

Shortly after the ruling, Pitt made a proposal to have the voting locations in Benedum Hall or the Biomedical Science Tower.

However, the USW pushed back in a press release on March 12, saying it was an attempt at “voter suppression” since there are more convenient, centralized locations on campus, such as the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union.

Miksch said in an emailed statement that both Benedum Hall and the Biomedical Science Tower are “home to or are convenient to many graduate students.”

“The (William Pitt) Union is home to very few graduate students,” Miksch said in the statement. “Holding elections there runs counter to our intent, which is to support all eligible graduate students in their right to vote. It’s also worth noting that the location of elections is ultimately a matter to be decided by the PLRB.”

Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies and Strategic Initiatives, echoed Miksch in an update to the University Senate Educational Policies Committee on March 19.

He further explained that the University felt that Benedum was a good location roughly at the center of Pitt’s Oakland campus.

“And it is in our interest — the University wants to make it as easy as possible for people to vote,” Urban said. “I think that it is the right thing to do. And, quite frankly, it’s what we want to do. … We want as many people, even the people who are just not necessarily the most committed, people who are on the fence but decide they have an opinion one way or the other. We want them to vote too. We don’t want to put the vote someplace that is not easily accessible.”

Urban said that the union’s request to hold the vote in the William Pitt Union presents some logistical challenges as well since the union has requested four days to hold the vote.

“No graduate students are in very close proximity to the (William Pitt) Union, so that, to us, seems like a bad choice,” Urban said. “In addition to it being nearly impossible, and probably impossible, to block out four days from 9 to 5 to have voting. So, there’s a practical matter as well.”

Location debated

Jeff Cech, a USW representative, pushed back on the voting locations, saying that they do not adequately support a fair democratic process.

“No, there’s not labs, there’s not classrooms in (William Pitt Union), but it’s about convenience of the location and people actually being able to get there over the course of their work day,” Cech said.

He added that some students may feel intimidated voting in Benedum Hall, home of the Swanson School of Engineering, due to the presence of University administrators.

“When you walk into Benedum Hall, the first thing you see is the dean’s office,” Cech said. “The William Pitt Union only has one upper level administrator as far as we know … so, it’s relatively free of managerial Pitt employees. There’s plenty of very private rooms that can be used over the course of several days. So, there’s a consistent private voting location.”

Lazar said students also may feel uncomfortable voting near their mentors, advisors and primary lead researchers.

“So, it … potentially creates an intimidation there, so it may diminish numbers,” Lazar said. “It seems clear to us that it’s another effort to obstruct our efforts and obstruct our ability good to have a fair vote.”

Lazar said she saw Pitt selecting these voting locations as a continuation of Pitt administration’s “union avoidance strategies” prompted by the University’s legal representation, Ballard Spahr.

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.

In the past, Penn State and The University of Pennsylvania hired Ballard Spahr following graduate student unionization efforts. Ultimately, graduate students at Penn State voted in April 2018 to not unionize, and at Penn, graduate students withdrew their petition in February 2018 to vote for a union.

“The University administration issued a statement saying … the PLRB’s decision was ‘disappointing,’ ” Lazar said. “Well, for us, the University’s efforts to obstruct our legal rights to a vote, our legal right to determine, to gain access to our union is not just disappointing. In fact, I find it unconscionable.

“Time and again, they’ve demonstrated that they so little value the well-being and critical contribution of the University student employees. And again, we’re the ones who are part of the efforts … to make our University the world class institution of higher learning that it is.”

Shared governance

It’s unclear how a graduate student union would affect Pitt’s current shared governance process. Currently, there are two main organizations within Pitt’s shared governance that advocate on behalf graduate students: The Graduate and Professional Student Government and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Organization.

Andrew Stephany, president of Staff Council, said he’s waiting to see what happens as the unionization process continues.

“I feel like Staff Council, from our perspective, we are striving to build a stronger University of Pittsburgh community through shared governance, just as grad student unionization has the same aim for that constituency, but they have a different approach,” he said. “Our goal really as Staff Council is always going to be to represent classified staff. … We don’t represent union employees currently, nor do I anticipate that happening.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said that he expects the vote to happen before the end of the semester. He said it’s important that as many eligible voters participate as possible.

“My view at this point is that it’s going to vote this semester,” Gallagher said. “And the best outcome of all is for graduate students to realize that this is important. It’s going to depend on a majority of votes cast, not the majority of the graduate students, but it’s going to be binding on all grad students in their bargaining unit. The best thing they can do is take it seriously, get informed and vote, and that’ll be my main message now.”

Gallagher said he has “no fear of a particular outcome. … my job is to support our students, and I’ll do that no matter what the outcome of this is.”

If the grad students vote for the union, there are a lot of unknowns going forward, Gallagher said, but there are other universities that have grad student unions in place that Pitt can look to for guidance.

“I think, obviously, then you’re negotiating with the elected members of the union along with United Steelworkers,” he said. “What’s covered in the collective bargaining agreement, versus what things are left in the existing shared governance all have to be worked out.”

Lazar said that while she values the of Graduate and Professional Student Government and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Organization in the shared governance process, a union would give graduate students more negotiating power.

“They certainly play a critical role in terms of providing a space for students, student workers to weigh in on their conditions, but they don’t have the same kind of institutional backing and access to resources that being part of a union would provide us with,” Lazar said. “So, while, a good measure for voicing grievances and voicing some input, only through a union would we truly be able to ensure that the decisions that we hope to see can be made.”

What’s next

Dates have not yet been set for the vote as negotiations for the voting location continue. However, USW organizers and University administrators expect the vote to be held before the end of the spring semester.

Urban said that there could be potential “exceptions,” which are similar to appeals, from both the University and the USW after the vote takes place that could challenge the “employee” designation under PARA.

“So, if the union disagrees with one sort of appeal after the election, they can appeal the bargaining unit, they can appeal something related to the way in which the election was held — all these kinds of things,” Urban said. “They can appeal the list that we generated, and occasionally that does happen. They’re called exceptions, not appeals, but they’re effectively like appeals that occur after a vote occurs.”

Lazar said the union will now be focusing on getting as many graduate students to vote as possible. This includes “pounding the pavement,” she said, and meeting students one on one, phone banking and more.

“If the University thinks that it’s continual effort to hinder our efforts is going to work, is going to intimidate us, is going to break this momentum, they’re wrong. If anything, it’s just further galvanizing our energy and further encouraging us to harness our collective power. And we are going to get out there and we are going to win our union.”

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