PLRB denies challenge to grad student union election


The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has decided to uphold the results of the contested April 2019 graduate student election where graduate students voted against unionization.

The order, issued Feb. 26, dismissed the petition from the United Steelworkers, the legal representatives for the Pitt graduate unionization effort, that, in part, claimed an email from a University professor influenced the outcome of the election.

A PLRB representative previously decided that an email from Steven Little, chair of Chemical Engineering at the Swanson School, sent on April 17, 2019, used “coercive” messaging. 

The email read in part: “I just wanted to send you a note to encourage you to vote in the graduate student unionization election. The polling location is the O’Hara Student Center. I was actually a little surprised to see that only 81 students from the School of Engineering (whole school) have voted so far.”

In the order, the PLRB determined that even though this email was considered an “unfair practice,” “the majority of the valid votes cast in the election were for ‘no representative’ by a margin of 59 votes.”

The final vote count, according to the order, was 677 in favor of unionization, 716 not in favor, 147 votes challenged and excluded and three ballots void or blank.

Amanda Godley, vice provost of graduate students, sent an email to graduate students saying the University will continue to support graduate students and encouraged them to contact her if they had any questions.

“We have all worked together to navigate the challenges of the pandemic — and I am proud of the grace and support you’ve extended to one another,” Godley said. “Please don’t forget to take care of yourselves and reach out for help when you need it.”

The USW said in a statement today that it is "exploring options for an appeal," and criticized the University for having paid the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr $2.1 million for legal counsel since 2016. Pitt paid the law firm $900,000 in fiscal year 2020.

"What is clear is that this is yet another in a long series of reminders of the administration’s anti-worker, union-busting behavior that has, so far, cost the University more than $2.1 million," the statement said. "The Pitt administration could have, years ago, simply allowed its workers the right to choose for themselves whether to join a union. Instead, it has waged an expensive, coordinated campaign to try to bully its way to the decision it wants. The fact remains that Pitt’s workers want and deserve a voice in the decisions that affect their students and their workplace, and they aren’t going to be intimidated into giving up that fight."

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


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