By DONOVAN HARRELL
In the culmination of a unionization campaign that has been ongoing since 2015, University of Pittsburgh faculty have overwhelmingly voted to form a union represented by United Steelworkers.
The results of the vote, tabulated on Oct. 19, show that 1,511 votes were cast in favor of the union while 612 voted for no representation, according to a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) document obtained by the University Times.
Out of the 3,335 eligible voters, 2,203 faculty submitted their ballots. The remaining 80 challenged ballots and 68 void or blank ballots cannot affect the outcome. Those eligible to included full-time and regular part-time tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream faculty and librarians in the provost area, Health Sciences schools, and School of Law.
Pitt faculty will now join 340 adjunct faculty members at Point Park University and 430 adjunct faculty at Robert Morris University to become part of the 850,000 members in the USW, according to a USW press release. Full-time faculty at Point Park are represented by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh/Communications Workers of America and full-time faculty and librarians at Robert Morris are represented by the American Federation of Teachers.
Now that the votes are counted, the PLRB will certify the results in five days. Then, the union will begin the process of electing a bargaining committee made up of faculty from across Pitt’s campuses and academic units.
Once that committee is formed, it will sit down with Pitt administrators to negotiate a bargaining agreement. The University said it remains committed to Pitt faculty.
“We have always maintained that this is a faculty matter and a faculty decision and are evaluating next steps,” a University spokesman said. “While the formation of a faculty union may change how our community works together, it will not change our longstanding commitment to partnering with faculty members to advance their pursuits of excellence in teaching, scholarship and research.”
Former Senate Council President Chris Bonneau, who has spoken out against the union, said he wasn’t surprised by the election results, but he was surprised that nearly 70 percent of eligible faculty who voted chose to form a union.
Bonneau said that this wide margin sends the message that many faculty are dissatisfied with Pitt’s administration.
“I don’t think you get to 70 percent just based on little issues,” Bonneau said. “I think that this indicates that there are big issues, and there are big concerns.”
Tyler Bickford, a union advocate and co-chair of the Senate Budget Policies Committee, said the election outcome was the result of dedicated, hardworking organizers.
“I feel a lot of gratitude toward all of the people who have put so much time and energy,” Bickford said. “It’s colleagues who came before us and laid the groundwork; it’s definitely the United Steelworkers for their guidance and support; it’s the students, staff, elected officials whose support just made a huge difference in making people feel safe to support their allies in the community.”
Bickford said he also felt a sense of pride after seeing the election results and that he’s ready to get to work.
“I think we did something really big and really hard, and we did it in a really big way,” Bickford said. “I think a lot of people have a lot to be proud of, also a lot to be excited for. The scale of the victory puts us in a really strong position to bargain a strong contract.”
How does the union fit into shared governance?
Bickford said that he believes the union doesn’t pose a threat to the University Senate and its various committees. It gives faculty a stronger voice in shared governance, he said.
“I feel like there’s no reason to worry,” Bickford said. “The most likely outcome is that having a contract will strengthen those committees and potentially give them more power to oversee the things they already oversee.”
But Senate Council President Robin Kear is unsure of how the union will integrate into Pitt’s shared governance.
For the past three months, Kear has been researching the possible ways the University Senate and the union would interact with each other. Her findings have given her mixed results, she said. But the main takeaway, Kear said, is that the union’s integration into shared governance will be complicated.
She expects the union to affect the Faculty Affairs, Budget Policies and Benefits and Welfare committees the most, because many of the issues the union seeks to address fall in their purview.
“I feel like I’m being a bit too much of a reality check,” Kear said. “I just know how complex it is, and how complex all of our schools are. … It’s a tough road for the Senate. And I think it will be equally as complex for coming to a collective bargaining agreement.”
For these entities to coexist, roles and rules need to be clearly defined, she added. It also depends on the institution’s specific needs.
Kear added she also wasn’t surprised at the results, especially since faculty have raised salary concerns since the 1990s.
The union seeks to improve several issues, including faculty salaries, job security, academic freedom and child and dependent care. Kear said Senate Council and shared governance have tried to address these and other concerns, but changes are slow.
And issues surrounding University communications and how administrators handled the return to in-person classes “gave credibility to a lot of the arguments the union was making about lack of involvement in decision-making,” Bonneau said.
But now that the election is finished, the union will have to fulfill its promises, he said, and it won’t be easy.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest — as a faculty member, it’s in my best interest, and it’s in all the faculty’s best interests — to hope they succeed,” Bonneau said. “But there are a lot of big issues. And I don’t think that they are easily rectified in the short term."
A long, contentious campaign
This faculty union effort officially started in 2018 with a card-signing campaign. Years of PLRB hearings and a multi-year legal dispute between the University’s representatives, the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr, and the United Steelworkers over the size of the proposed bargaining unit have followed.
The Steelworkers have repeatedly criticized the University for using “union-busting” tactics throughout the campaign, including “padding” the list of employees in the proposed bargaining unit with people who are ineligible to vote.
Union organizers have also criticized the University’s payments to its legal consultants. The University has paid Ballard Spahr $2.1 million since 2016. The University paid $900,000 in the fiscal year 2020.
Pitt has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing during the unionization effort and opted to stay neutral during the election.
The dispute over the composition of the bargaining unit was resolved when the PLRB ordered the University on April 16 to submit a list of employees eligible to participate in a union vote. The order also defined the job positions eligible to vote and ruled that the School of Medicine can form a separate bargaining unit and vote separately.
On July 16, the PLRB issued the order for the election. Eligible voters were sent a letter on Aug. 27 containing an official ballot.
The move to unionize follows a national trend that saw 118 new faculty bargaining units, composed of more than 36,000 faculty members, form between 2013 and 2019 in the U.S., according to a study by Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
Fifty of those were at public institutions, which joined the 565 public sector faculty bargaining units established before 2013 — many of which are for adjunct faculty only.
Graduate student union
The PLRB recently decided to uphold the results of the April 2019 graduate student union elections, where students ultimately voted against forming a union.
The USW appealed the results of the April 2019 election, which the union narrowly lost with 675 votes in favor of the union and 712 votes against it.
USW legal representatives for the graduate student unionization effort said it would appeal the latest decision.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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