Pitt presses PLRB to uphold original graduate student election results


The University filed exceptions Oct. 7 to a proposed order from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that determined Pitt engaged in unfair labor practices during the graduate student unionization election in April.

Pitt’s legal representatives, Ballard Spahr, said the University did not use any unfair labor practices and asked that a proposed order Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmerich sent on Sept. 18 be “set aside” in favor of the University.

The Pitt filing also called for the results of the graduate student election — from April 12 to 18 — be upheld. The final vote tally was 675 votes in favor of the union with 712 votes against it.

Legal representatives from the United Steelworkers, which represents the graduate students, made 12 arguments that claimed Pitt engaged in inappropriate labor practices. Helmerich, in his order, agreed that three were “unfair and “coercive.”

Helmerich’s order said the three instances of alleged violations — an email from Steven Little, chair of chemical engineering at the Swanson School; an email Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies; and a portion of a Pitt webpage — affected the outcome of the election.

In the exceptions Pitt filed, the University said Helmerich’s findings are “contrary to well-established law and contrary to substantial evidence in the record.”

Pitt spokesman Kevin Zwick said in a statement that Pitt acted appropriately throughout the process and explained why Helmerich came to the wrong conclusion on three of the 12 allegations.

“Of the remaining three allegations: Two counts were related to factual statements made on the University’s website that are similar in nature to other statements found by the hearing examiner to be appropriate,” the statement read. “The third count pertains to an email sent to a small number of eligible voters. In this email, a department chair encourages students to vote — and does not pick a side — while also linking to information from both the Steelworkers and the University.

“All of the communications in question are accurate, appropriate and factual. The University looks forward to a closer review — with full context considered — of these three counts in question.”

In a series of tweets, the Pitt graduate student union account said students will continue the fight for unionization.

“Despite this most recent attempt to restrict our rights as workers, we will continue to organize in support of all grad employees at Pitt,” a tweet reads. “Though the PLRB hearing officer found Pitt’s actions illegal, the administration is ignoring a decision by a state agency by appealing these findings, yet again delaying the process and trying to strip us of our rights under PA law.”

Both the PLRB and the USW have 20 days from Oct. 7 to respond to the exceptions.

William A. Herbert, a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College, City University of New York, and executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, said the graduate student union effort on campus joins a 50-year history of organizing on university campuses.

The first recognized graduate student union, which was formed in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, pushed future groups to adopt similar tactics by using public sector collective bargaining laws, Herbert said.

The long-term contracts created in these unionizations created “improved working conditions for graduate assistants and has led to greater uniformity among departments,” Herbert said. However, private sector colleges and universities have been “far more” resistant to graduate student unionizations.

There are five private universities where graduate students have union contracts, he added: New York University, American University, Brandeis University, The New School and Tufts University. This comprises roughly 3,500 graduate students.

It’s rare that bargaining laws don’t favor graduate student unionization bids, he added.

“Virtually all public sector collective bargaining laws have been interpreted to find that graduate assistants are employees entitled to collective bargaining,” Herbert said.

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