University of Pittsburgh graduate students who want to form their own union say they’ll have enough signatures by the end of the semester to ask the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to put the issue to a vote. For the union to become reality, a majority of the more than 2,000 graduate students employed by Pitt would have to approve the measure formally.
Organizers expect over half of graduate student employees at Pitt to return signed authorization cards expressing their support for a vote. The labor board requires requires at least 30 percent of potential union members to submit authorization cards before it will consider whether to hold vote on unionization.
Abby Cartus, a student at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, has been gathering cards since last winter. She believes that a union would give graduate students more power over their work conditions, by functioning as an independent body outside the university.
“Ultimately, the way that I see it, after having talked to so many people, is that it just boils down to the fact that we don’t have any power over our own situation,” she said. “We have no channels by which to petition for higher pay or petition for better childcare or anything like that that aren’t controlled by the university.”
Pitt Provost Patricia Beeson opposes the move to unionize. She wrote an open letter in July saying that governance structures within the university provide more appropriate means for addressing student concerns in the academic context.
Pitt Vice Provost Nathan Urban chairs the University Council on Graduate Studies, which includes six graduate student representatives, and says he meets with students from across the university. Through such processes, Urban said, administrators have addressed student concerns regarding financial support and accommodations for new parents.
“It’s in the interest of the university to have successful graduate students, and so we do in many ways and in many cases, listen to and respond to graduate student concerns,” Urban said.
The university also says the health benefits and stipend levels it offers to students are “highly competitive.” In the last five years, stipends have increased at double the rate of inflation and more quickly than faculty and staff salaries, according to the university.
“We need to be competitive with some of the best universities in the country,” Urban noted.
Graduate students initiated the unionization effort at Pitt around 2015, according to Cartus. They then chose to organize under the Academic Workers Association, an arm of the United Steelworkers (USW) that “represents more than 10,000 academic workers in the U.S. and Canada.”
The Graduate Student Organizing Committee formally kicked off its campaign to unionize in January 2016. As part of the campaign, the group also seeks to unionize Pitt’s 5,000 tenured, tenure-track and adjunct professors. The USW already represents adjunct faculty at Point Park University and Robert Morris University.
On Tuesday, the group says it will deliver letters from more than 20 lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), asking the Pitt administration to remain neutral on unionization.
In a statement Monday, the USW said that this summer the Pitt administration had started to hold anti-union meetings, circulated anti-union emails and set up a web site “to discourage graduate student employees from exercising their right to create a union" – an inappropriate use of tax and tuition dollars, according to the group.
In her July letter, Beeson expressed concern that "a rigid collective bargaining model" could lead to an adversarial relationship between graduate students and the university.
“Our current processes provide the flexibility to address individual concerns while working with graduate student representatives as voting members of important governing bodies to address broader issues and enhance the overall student experience,” she wrote.
Cartus thinks a union could benefit both sides by formalizing students’ employment relationship with the university.
“I actually think that the relationship could benefit from having some more delineated sort of roles and responsibilities,” she said. “Having a union, and having specifically a union-related grievance procedure, would take some of the sort of managerial tasks that just get piled onto academic advisors off their plate.”
Without a union, Cartus says graduate students lack power to enforce work hour limits and to negotiate higher pay. These issues, combined with uncertainty about funding for research and the high cost of health and childcare benefits, threaten the mental health of graduate students, Cartus said.
Nationally, graduate students at most universities have not unionized. The Pitt Graduate Student Organizing Committee says the phenomenon is spreading, with students at 60 universities represented by or in the process of forming unions.