PLRB hears complaints in grad student union election


Lawyers for the United Steelworkers, representing Pitt’s grad student union organizers, and Ballard Spahr, representing Pitt’s administration, squared off again this week in front of a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing examiner over complaints by the union against Pitt and the PLRB about conduct during the recent grad union election.

USW lawyer Brad Manzolillo presented testimony from several students who served as observers during the April 15 to 18 election to determine if grad students wanted union representation on campus.

The final vote tally was 675 for the union and 712 against, but the union contends in its complaints that PLRB agents overseeing the election interfered with “a free and uncoerced election by knowingly allowing the Employer’s Election Watchers … to keep an independent list of every person who voted during the election,” and by being inconsistent in asking for student IDs from voters.

The union’s main contention against the University is that by keeping a list of those who voted and then sharing it with people in management positions, the University was taking “unlawful actions to intimidate employees,” according to its complaint.

To back up this complaint, the union’s lawyers entered into evidence two emails. The first from Steven Little, chair of the chemical and petroleum engineering department, said he “was actually a little surprised that only 81 students from the School of Engineering have voted so far.” The second from the head of the Engineering Graduate Student Organization indicated that only 30 percent of eligible engineers had voted. The union said in its complaint that these emails “made clear the Employer was tracking in detail who voted” and sharing that information with department supervisors and others.

Little was unable to speak at the hearings since he was out of the country at the time. Nathan Urban, vice provost for graduate studies, said he became aware of Little’s email when the subpoena was issued. The email was sent the morning of the third day of elections

Urban said he had the opportunity after the first day to see the exact number of students in chemical engineering who voted, which was 46. This number was determined through the list of eligible voters provided by the University, which differs from the PLRB’s list.

Several students who were official observers at the election all testified that they saw the Pitt observers checking names off a long list of, what they assumed were, eligible voters. Those testifying also said the PLRB officials frequently had students repeat their names more loudly and spell their names so the University observers would hear it. They also said they had been told by USW representatives not to keep their own list because it would be “coercive and intimidating.”

Dennis Bachy, the PLRB administrative officer who has been in charge of Pittsburgh office since 2002 and who oversaw the Pitt election, testified that he asked students to repeat or spell their names so observers from both sides could hear. In fact, Bachy said, there were a few times that the University observer was able to find a name on their list when the PLRB couldn’t find it on theirs.

Bachy said that Manzolillo did approach him on the morning of the second day of voting to say the union had concerns that the Pitt observers had a list of eligible voters they were checking off in view of students. Bachy told him the PLRB didn’t have a rule against either party having a list.

To Manzolillo’s concern that the list was intimidating to students, Bachy said, “In my four days there, I didn’t see anyone who looked intimidated.”

When asked by Shannon Farmer of Ballard Spahr if he was surprised the University was keeping track of voters, Bachy said he only was surprised that the union wasn’t.

On the issue of showing IDs, Bachy admitted that initially they were only asking for student IDs when the names were confusing, but starting on the afternoon of the second day of voting, they began asking everyone for their ID.

Student witnesses said that the during the first day and a half of voting, the people being asked for IDs were disproportionately people of color, either Asian or Middle Eastern, some said. The union, in its complaint against the PLRB, stated that, “Even if unintentional, the appearance to multiple voters and to union observers was that international graduate students were being singled out in an intimidating manner.”

Amanda Brodish, director of data analytics and pathways for student success, was the only University watcher who testified to possibly seeing a pattern among voters asked for their I.D. She noted that it seemed as though people of color had their IDs checked more often than their white peers.

The other watchers who provided testimony on the second day, including Peggy King, senior assistant to the provost, and Amy Tuttle, senior assistant to the provost for faculty affairs, said they did not notice this pattern. Victoria Lancaster, director of faculty actions, said she only witnessed ID checks when watchers “struggled” with student names.

Lancaster, and the other watchers who testified, said as students voted, they crossed off names on the eligible voters list. They added that PLRB representatives didn’t give any indication that there was anything wrong with crossing the names off, Lancaster said. They said they didn’t see students opt out of voting after being asked for ID.

Bachy testified they did not target international students and they started to ask for everyone’s student ID because it was easy to see the names and then check them against the PLRB list.

The union also charged that PLRB agents moved the University observers closer to the agent who was checking names, and then placed each of the IDs between the agent and the University observer. Bachy said the University observer initially was separated from the election agent by another person, and the union observer was not. He said when the voting area became crowded and louder, he moved the University observer closer.

On the second day of hearings, Lancaster backed up Bachy, saying the seating was adjusted so watchers could be closer to the PLRB in case there were ID issues and because the room became loud.

In a separate filing, the USW listed complaints against the University and its representatives.  including assigning supervisors as the official election observers who were “closely aligned with management.” Bachy said he asked the observers in a pre-election briefing what their jobs entailed and although they were managers, he was assured that none had a supervisory role over graduate students. Each of the student witnesses, when asked by the University’s attorneys, said they did not know any of the Pitt observers before the election.

None of the watchers, in the second day of hearings, said they had direct interaction with graduate students. King, however, has a reporting relationship to Provost Ann Cudd.

Stephanie Hoogendoorn, senior assistant to the provost for Academic Affairs, was the only witness who directly reported to Urban. She was tasked with facilitating the election locations and picking the watchers.

The people selected to be watchers, she said, were people who were available all four days of the election and who didn’t work directly with graduate students or shape policies related to graduate students.

And if someone were to drop out of being a watcher, Hoogendorn said she was confident she could easily find more eligible watchers.

On cross examination, USW legal representatives asked her where she kept the list of eligible voters and who she shared it with. Prior to the election, she said she only shared it with the people in charge of creating the list and kept the full list in her locked office. The morning of the election, she passed the list of eligible voters out to the watchers.

Union lawyers also asked why she was confident she could easily find a backup watcher should the situation call for it, and she said it was because the provost’s office is very large and full of people who do not directly interact with graduate students.

Union lawyers also entered into evidence several emails sent to graduate students in the bargaining unit before the election by Urban and several screen shots from the University’s website about the unionization process.

The union in its complaint said the emails, which ranged in topics from stipends to working conditions to interactions with faculty advisors, constituted intimidation. The emails can all be found here.

On cross-examination, Jeff Cech, an organizer for the USW, said the union had sent out its own emails in the weeks just prior to the election, but only to those who had expressed support in some way. He also said they did try to determine who had voted, but not necessarily how they voted. And they were not keeping a list.

Urban, who produced content for the emails and the University’s unionization website, estimated the number of emails sent from March through the voting period to be around 50 or 60. He also noted that there were several town halls held for graduate students to submit questions about the process.

During Urban’s cross examination, Manzolillo asked Urban what the purpose of the emails was, what the tone of the messages was and if he realized that the message could impact student’s voting habits.

Urban explained that the emails were sent to get the graduate student body more involved in the voting process.

“It was clear from the early stages that graduate students hadn't broadly been engaged in discussing, in thinking about, and in engaging with this issue,” Urban said. “We felt it was important to get their attention.”

He later said that he didn’t know how effective the emails were at reaching the student body, but it was the best way to message broad groups of students.

Manzolillo asked if Urban thought the emails sent were “mutual or balanced.” Urban said that many were neutral in their opinion, but others weren’t because “the University had a position on the issue, and that’s something that was reflected in some of those emails.” The University’s position being against unionization.

Later in the cross examination, Urban confirmed that a stipend increase listed on the University’s unionization website was inaccurate. He suspected the error to be small and occurred because “a column was off by one.” The official record, he said, is available through the Office of Institutional Research.

The union complaint also said that Jeff Vipperman, vice chair of mechanical engineering and material sciences, escorted several grad students to the polling place in the O’Hara Student Center on April 17 and waited outside while they voted.

Vipperman and one of the grad students in the group testified that Vipperman did not lead the students to the polling place, nor did he wait outside. The group of students had gathered for lunch.

The student said the only thing Vipperman was asked related to the election was how long the voting period was. Vipperman didn’t tell him to vote or who to vote for, the student said.

The hearings concluded with legal representatives being told to submit audio and visual documentation and a redacted list of eligible voters provided to the University watchers. Once those have been gathered, the record will be closed, and the examiner will set a briefing schedule. It’s not clear how long this process will take.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294. Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905