Union bargaining committee to focus on non-economic issues first


As contract negotiations with the administration move forward this spring and summer, Pitt’s faculty union will initially prioritize “non-economic” policies at the bargaining table.  

Tyler Bickford, chair of the fledgling union’s 15-member bargaining committee, said proposals focused on binding arbitration and policies related to academic freedom, health, safety and environment will be negotiated before such matters as salaries, benefits and policies that carry a “price tag.”

“The normal process for bargaining a contract in any industry is to negotiate what are called the ‘non-economic’ policies first, and to get tentative agreements on those before moving on to economic policies,” he said. “And so really, that difference is just economic policies or policies that have a specific price tag attached to them, which means things like salaries, benefits, leaves (of absence) and things like that.”

Bickford shared the priorities in a virtual meeting on April 26 — one of three sessions during the week — to update members of the faculty bargaining unit on the evolving union’s plans as it prepares to further engage with Pitt administration to create and ratify a contract.

Several faculty union representatives — along with Bernie Hall of the United Steelworkers Union (USW), which represents the faculty union — introduced themselves, describing how they see the bargaining process unfolding, and addressing faculty-generated questions.

The union’s Council of Representatives in February elected bargaining committee members from its ranks. With the help of a legal team, the committee is developing policies to present first to the council and then Pitt’s administration during the bargaining process.

With the players in place, committee members are listening to their faculty constituents’ interests and concerns to form discussion points for the administration. Some of the feedback the bargaining committee will draw from includes a survey presented to faculty just before spring break. The committee is currently analyzing the resulting data.

“We had a high level of participation — a large majority of the faculty responded to the survey, and we had participation from across all of our campuses,” said Melinda Ciccocioppo, a psychology department lecturer who chairs the union’s communications teams, in a post-meeting interview. “It does look like pay and transparency are really kind of rising to the top as big priorities for faculty.”

Marcy Pierson, chair of the union’s Council of Representatives, or COR, described the upcoming phase of collective bargaining as “the legal process of reaching a contract between a union and employer … that’s what we’re doing now,” she said. “And the goal of this is obviously going to be a contract that works for everyone — for the administration and for us, as faculty.”

As envisioned by union leadership, the contract will be “very broad, very wide-ranging in terms of what it covers,” Pierson added. “We’re talking about pay, we’re talking about transparency, leave (of absence), childcare, protections against unfair treatment. This covers so many aspects of our lives as faculty and gives us so many different kinds of protections in many different ways.”

In the few sessions the bargaining committee has had with the administration so far, Bickford said a “number of proposals” have been presented, including:

  • A grievance procedure that ends in binding arbitration, which he called a “major goal” for the contract.

  • Policies on proposals and academic freedom, health, safety and environment.

  • Research and development proposals involving “especially complicated stuff” like workloads, job security and preparing for economic bargaining down the road on issues involving salaries, benefits and leaves of absence.

“Non-economic policies are the sort of majority of the policies,” Bickford noted, “like a grievance procedure or health and safety or questions about contract renewals.”

Hall, District 10/Pennsylvania director of United Steelworkers, noted that Pitt continues a growing trend of academic and other non-industrial entities moving under the USW umbrella.  

“We probably are the most diverse union in the United States, when you look at our membership,” he said, citing clients including Carnegie Library Systems, HCL Technologies and Point Park University. “And having you all join us, it’s really exciting … because when workers join together, the power that comes from that is really incredible.”

Noting that every USW representative working with the faculty union — including 23 staff members and eight administrative assistants — comes from the working-class “rank and file,” Hall assured faculty members they will be in empathetic hands. “Whatever staff representative you may be working with in the future,” he said, “they came from a workplace just like you.”

The final portion of the meeting was devoted to addressing questions submitted by faculty members. The topics included the following:

Dues, voting rights and representation

Dues will be 1.45 percent of one’s gross pay, Hall said, with 44 cents of every dollar going to the local union chapter, a portion of which goes to the international chapter.

Dues support USW resources including legal and organizing; strategic campaigns; communications and new media, which can help set up local union websites and social media programs; and the education department

“Fourty-four percent comes back to us, so we get control, as a union, over what we want to do with that dues money,” Ciccocioppo explained. “And then the rest of it goes to the USW International.” 

When an agreement is finally reached with the administration, only those faculty who have signed a union membership card and paid dues will be able to vote, although the deal will cover all faculty in the bargaining group.

“When you’re sending out your bargaining surveys, when you’re having events such as these, everybody’s included,” Hall noted. “But at the end of the day, we’re an organization made up of our members … We’re a member-driven organization. So it’s only fair that it’s those members that make this all possible that they’re the ones that vote on the contract.”

In an interview with The Pitt News last week, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he would probably join the union when he transitions to being a faculty member in the physics department next year. “That’s how you have a voice,” he said.

Meetings and communication

The union’s communication and action team, or CAT, serves as its information and feedback source for all faculty members in the bargaining unit. Ciccocioppo emphasized its crucial role.

“We’re about 200 (members) strong right now, across all campuses and across all of our schools and departments and academic programs within the community,” she said at the April 26 meeting. “And our job is to disseminate information out from the bargaining committee to the broader faculty (and) know what's going on with contract negotiations. And then to also take feedback from faculty up to the bargaining committee so that they understand what issues faculty are facing and what our priorities are.

“The action part is that we also organize solidarity actions in order to give our bargaining committee leverage at the bargaining table,” she added. “So, we want to show the administration that we are united, that we are engaged, that we are paying attention, because that then gives our bargaining committee more power to get to nice things that they are negotiating for us at the bargaining table.”

Increasing diversity

“Obviously … we are open for all faculty to join the CAT,” Ciccocioppo said. “It is completely voluntary … anybody can join. The (Council of Representatives) nominations process was also entirely open, and anyone could self-nominate. But I also recognize that faculty of color, particularly at Pitt, where they are such a minority … their time and their energy is particularly taxed, and I get that. And so that's something that I'd really like to focus on this summer, is meeting with faculty of color and trying to figure out how we make sure that their interests and issues are represented without also contributing to that overwork. And I would love it if someone would like to reach out to me and have a conversation … and get to know more about how we increase diversity in our union and also just how we make sure that those voices are represented.”

Anyone can sign up for the union’s newsletter at pittfaculty.org. Ciccocioppo suggested using personal email instead of pitt.edu addresses, to avoid the newsletter being tagged as spam.

Those interested in union activities also can get updates by texting PITTFACULTY to 47486, or reaching out to Ciccocioppo via email at info@pittfaculty.org.

Shannon O. Wells is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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