OPINION: Pitt AAUP leader outlines support for faculty union


In July 2015, while in Barcelona, I received a call from a colleague requesting that I join an effort to organize Pitt faculty into a union. I eagerly attended the initial meeting in August 2015 with fewer than 10 faculty in attendance, including several members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). We were not deterred by the small turnout and were soon joined by others.

Finally, after six years of dedicated work by many, faculty have our ballots in hand from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB). As Pitt-AAUP president, I encourage a “yes” vote to select United Steelworkers (USW), allowing Pitt faculty to engage in collective bargaining with USW as our umbrella organization.  

The August 2015 meeting was nearly two years after we learned the tragic story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a French professor and 25-year faculty member at Duquesne University.  Margaret Mary’s part-time teaching position had become ever more precarious, and was eventually eliminated altogether, as she became ill. She ultimately died, alone, destitute and homeless, at age 83 (Post-Gazette, Sept 18, 2013). Margaret Mary’s tragic end, along with growing insecurity of other faculty (even full-time and tenured faculty) in Pittsburgh, helped to galvanize support among Pitt faculty for another attempt at unionizing.

This is Pitt faculty’s fourth attempt to form a union in a half-century. Pitt-AAUP (formerly United Faculty, or UF) led three earlier attempts from 1969 through 1996.  A history and analysis of those earlier efforts, authored by Mark Ginsburg and Pitt-AAUP officer Phil Wion (written in 1998), explains the challenges faced in those earlier efforts.

But it’s important to recognize that the obstacles organizers faced in those earlier efforts are not as determinative now, in 2021. The failures in 1969-96 were due less to a lack of desire among faculty for a union than to an inability to coalesce around agreement as to what was the “community of interest” in determining bargaining units. Those earlier efforts were also affected by complicated rules of balloting (in 1976), changes in the definition of bargaining units and the 1980 Yeshiva decision (in 1977-91), and changes in administration that provided hope to faculty that their grievances might be addressed (1996). 

Furthermore, in the nearly quarter-century since Ginsburg and Wion’s 1998 analysis, support for faculty unions has increased among Association of American Universities (AAU) institutions. In 1995, only three of the 60 research-oriented AAU institutions had faculty unions; today, at least five public AAUs have all-ranks unions, and another nine have unions representing some groups of faculty. We’ve witnessed a growth in support for faculty unions in both our AAU peer institutions and other colleges and universities.

The AAUP position on faculty unions is unequivocal support. The AAUP statement on collective bargaining was initially adopted in 1973 and revised most recently in 2017. The statement’s initial paragraph affirms the value of collective bargaining:

“The American Association of University Professors supports collective bargaining as a means to advance the goals of the organization. … (These include) academic freedom, institutions of faculty governance, fair procedures for resolving grievances, the economic well-being of faculty and other academic professionals, and the advancement of the interests of higher education. Collective bargaining is an effective instrument for achieving these objectives, and therefore the Association supports the right of faculty … to form unions. … The Association (also) promotes collective bargaining to reinforce and secure … fair workplace procedures, and the economic security of the profession. Moreover, a union can provide all those who teach and conduct research in higher education with an effective voice in decisions that vitally affect its members’ professional well-being, such as the allocation of financial resources and determination of salaries and benefits.”

As the statement indicates, the AAUP’s primary concerns include the protection of academic freedom and faculty governance, as well as grievance procedures and economic well-being.  Some opposing a union have expressed concern that unionizing risks adding an additional governing layer above and/or against the shared governance system already in place. Had we a truly effective shared governance system this could be a legitimate argument. Though there may be some schools and departments where tenured faculty have a genuine voice on matters related to their areas of concern, this may be the exception rather than the norm. 

Shared governance is the desired model only if it is truly shared and faculty feel confident in participating without fear. This is, sadly, not typical. Issues are routinely decided by unit heads or administrators with little or no faculty input, with faculty asked to endorse a decision after the fact. Faculty suggestions are merely “advisory” and often disregarded. Consequently, nominal shared governance is inadequate to meet faculty needs, especially in these days of widespread faculty contingency. 

A faculty union would address this problem by providing faculty their own elected body, accountable to them and with powers enforced by a collective bargaining agreement, granting faculty a voice not currently present in our institutions of shared governance.

In a joint statement from the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sent to AAUP members on Sept. 1, 2021, AAUP President Irene Mulvey added this:

“Higher education faces serious challenges — decades of disinvestment in public institutions, the erosion of tenure, the exploitation of faculty in precarious appointments and a subsequent loss of academic freedom, attacks on teaching about race and racism, and legislative and donor interference in the curriculum and in hiring. These challenges are part of a larger attack on the public good, public employees, expertise, and knowledge. They are best confronted with solidarity. … Together we can accomplish what is impossible on our own.”

What’s at stake in this vote is not merely faculty bargaining power and voice on issues of governance, salary and benefits. Rather, it’s the promised solidarity and strength of collective bargaining that a union can provide to all of us. I encourage faculty to carefully consider the matter, complete your ballot, and mail it back to the PLRB as early as possible. 

Beverly A. Gaddy

Associate professor, Political Science, Pitt-Greensburg

President, Pitt-AAUP