OPINION: Why I oppose the Pitt faculty union (and why you should, too)


I oppose the Pitt Faculty Union and will vote against it. And it’s not for the usual Econ 101 reasons (unions reduce jobs, etc.). It’s based on the campaign the Pitt Faculty Union has run and, more importantly, where we stand in faculty relations with our administration.

One reason is that our administration has done well in the areas where the union claims they have failed us. Consider a few examples. There’s no shortage of tweets by the union organizers that Pitt’s not looking out for us with coronavirus. But Pitt’s administration has achieved a rather remarkable feat — extremely high vaccination rates, in a context where the state’s rules prevent us from mandating vaccines. And Pitt’s approach has been extremely conservative in that the administration has done whatever it can to keep us out of the buildings, reduce travel, and so forth.

Here’s another example. There’s a lot of talk that the union will get a fair deal for faculty. They talk a lot about adjunct pay. But we all know that our administration has been pushing for longer-term contracts for faculty to replace adjuncts stringing together courses. Those longer-term contracts constitute most of the expenditures on our appointment stream faculty. And it’s also clear that our administration has done a lot to clarify the expectations for appointment stream faculty, including recognizing that the language the union throws around so much — adjunct — is often less appropriate for the faculty, and less dignified than it could be. 

All of this was accomplished without a union, so the idea that unions are necessary for these good outcomes just does make much logical sense.

There are also costs of unions. One is declining flexibility to respond to changes in the market for higher education. Consider Outlier, which involves contracting out to teach basic courses. Why do it? It saves students money. Is there any reason to think a union would support this? Probably not. In fact, the union would likely bargain to protect any Pitt faculty teaching those courses, at the expense of students who want cheaper options. Why not let the students decide? A savvy union might see the market as changing, and itself as a strategic partner, but there’s nothing in this campaign that leads me to believe we would have that kind of a union that sees flexibility as a critical asset.

There are other reasons why I don’t think we need a union. One is that it is unlikely the union will have much bargaining strength. The bargaining strength of a union comes from the threat of strikes and when the members of the union have similar interests. Pitt’s union will have neither. Our union has no threat of a strike and as noted above, there is just too much diversity of interests. Some faculty make $500,000 a year, others make less than $3,500 to teach a course. Absent a clear and compelling shared interest, the logic of collective action will ensure that there will not be a lot of people actively participating in the union (and I can tell you most faculty I’ve talked to are basically of the opinion that if this happens, no big deal if we don’t have to pay dues — which doesn’t bode well for a bargaining unit!).

Nor is it clear that the union has any plan. Yes, they say once we organize, it will come. But that’s not enough. Will the union defend the academic freedom of faculty better than what we currently have? If so, how? How exactly will the union put a dent in the three-year waiting list for daycare? How exactly will the union increase our diversity, equity and inclusion? The union talks a big game, but there’s really no plan.

There are other costs of unions. Can the administration intervene to deal with them? A faculty union, much like a police union, could simply make it challenging to deal with problems.

In the end, it’s pretty easy for me to vote against a union. Our administration has done well, without a union, to deliver for us. And the market doesn’t lie. We have done well as far as enrollment, so the students continue to decide to come to Pitt. There is in fact a lot of good will and trust between faculty and our administration, and effective shared governance. If it isn’t broke, don’t break it. I’m voting against the union, and you should, too, if you care most about students and maintaining our good and trusting relationship with our administration.

Ilia Murtazashvili

Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs