What’s next for the union? Pitt faculty, leaders are scrambling for answers


In the aftermath of the successful faculty unionization vote last month, the big question echoing in the halls of all Pitt’s schools and campuses is: What comes next?

As the United Steelworkers and the Pitt faculty organizing committee prepare to form a bargaining committee, questions abound for faculty, administrators, deans, department heads, and the University Senate about what this change will mean for them.

What we know

1. This won’t be a quick process. Estimates from several sources say that it could take one to two years before a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is signed. There is a 20-day period after the election is certified in which either side can object. After that, the union will begin to form its bargaining committee. Those 20 days should be up soon.

2. For the first contract, everyone in the bargaining unit votes, according to information Robin Kear, Senate president, said she received from the USW. After the first contract, anyone in the bargaining unit who wants to be a member of the union must pay dues, and only members can vote on subsequent contracts. If you’re in the bargaining unit and choose not to pay dues, you are still subject to the terms of the negotiated agreement. A 2018 Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, ruled that public employees do not have to pay fees to unions to cover the costs of collective bargaining. 

3. The key areas likely to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement are salaries, benefits, working conditions and grievance processes. The state Public Employee Relations Act says the scope of bargaining includes “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.” The act says public employers, like Pitt, do not have to bargain over “matters of inherent managerial policy.” These can include standards of services, overall budget, utilization of technology, the organizational structure and selection and direction of personnel.

4. While approximately 3,300 Pitt faculty will be covered by any agreement reached between the USW and the University, many others will not, including all School of Medicine faculty, research and postdoc associates, department chairs, vice-chancellors, vice provosts, various library administrators and administrators of specific centers, programs, laboratories, and institutes. Find a full list of the positions excluded here.

5. Kear, at the Nov. 3 Faculty Assembly, listed some areas that will see immediate impacts:

  • The provost’s office is rethinking planned policy work that may impact the faculty in the bargaining unit but is continuing work on policies that are already in the shared governance process.

  • The resolution on bringing lecturers’ salaries up to the AAU public schools’ median that was passed by the Senate last spring must be paused. 

  • The work of the new dependent care ad-hoc committee might have to be rethought. “The recommendations that may come out of something like that may be applicable more broadly to staff and faculty who are not in the unit, but may be negotiated into a forthcoming CBA,” Kear said.

  • Work that the Faculty Affairs committee was doing on contract lengths, “I don’t think can continue,” she said.

Senate Council perspective

At the Faculty Assembly meeting, Kear detailed what she has learned in the two weeks since the vote and her views on “what we will need to do, especially in this interim period that could last one to two years before a collective bargaining agreement is signed.”

One important fact to note, Kear said, is that Senate Council, Faculty Assembly and Senate committees represent a much larger group than the bargaining unit that approved the union. 

“I was elected to represent all faculty, including but not exclusively, a large amount of faculty in this contract,” she said. “Senate Council and Faculty Assembly are, I feel, in a difficult position here. We are not the employer. We are not the bargaining unit. But our assembly includes the entire bargaining unit, and the officers that you see here are all in the bargaining unit. Even just over the last few weeks, I have found myself with more constraints.”

Kear has researched other universities with faculty unions and found that “each institution’s relationship between faculty senates and faculty unions really depends on the history of shared governance. And it depends on how large the bargaining unit is — if it’s the entire faculty or if it’s part of the faculty.” She pointed to Rutgers University and the University of Florida as two large public schools that have active senates and active unions.

As president of the Senate, Kear has asked the Bylaws and Procedures committee to look at other universities that have active senates and active unions “to examine their bylaws and consider any changes that may need to be made to our bylaws.”

She asked Faculty Assembly to “think about what our clear goal is because we are one seat at the table that does not have to be there. We are not in a legal agreement. So I think that, for us, coming up with clear roles for the Senate and the Assembly is vital.”

Some areas are already seeing an impact from the uncertainties of what comes next. Kear said that committees — such as Budget Policies and Faculty Affairs — that are working on issues likely to be in the bargaining agreement may find their administration representative’s involvement is limited because of concerns for bypassing the negotiation process. 

For instance, Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for budget and analytics, told the Senate Budget Policies committee on Oct. 22 that discussions on the new budget model, which was recently approved by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, would have to be put on hold. “The change in that budget structure required a change in the governance process of how we did things with the shared governance. Since how we did shared governance is now going away, what we had developed as a proposal to start discussions with this group is out the door as of Tuesday (Oct. 19, the day the union vote was announced),” he said. 

“We’re taking a pause so we can go talk to the attorneys to figure out who we can talk to directly about this, who we can’t and when,” Wisniewski said. “What do we do in the interim? We truly do not know.”

At Faculty Assembly, Kear said it was her understanding that for now, the status quo from before the union vote should continue in many aspects. But, she said later, “The murky areas are where collective bargaining is expected to take place, like salaries. How can something continue to move forward as status quo if it is what would be negotiated?”

Tyler Bickford, chair of the Budget Policies committee who has been active in supporting the union, said in the Faculty Assembly Zoom meeting chat: “The key upshot for me about the … ‘status quo’ issue is, 1) that we have protections against unilateral changes in our jobs, and 2) if anyone is being told that their chair can’t talk with them about their job, or that planned improvements can’t be made, please email info@pittfaculty.org, because it may be possible to address that. They definitely can’t create a side contract with any of us individually, but department chairs or others may be overcautious or interpreting advice from the provost and deans overcautiously, and there are supports for you if you find yourself in that situation.”

Several members of Faculty Assembly who are on the School of Medicine faculty also expressed dismay that they were left out of the union vote. The decision to exclude those faculty was reached by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board after several years of hearings. The PLRB ruled they can form a separate bargaining unit and vote separately. 

Abbe de Vallejo, an associate professor of pediatrics and immunology, noted that leaving out the School of Medicine faculty “creates two kinds of faculty citizens.”

Legal perspective

John Stember, an attorney at the Pittsburgh-based law firm Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling, said the bargaining process for the first contracts is typically the most difficult because many employers have operated without having to work with a union. 

He said that while he has no direct experience with faculty unions, he’s represented several educators who are members of faculty unions. His law firm also has worked with the United Steelworkers several times. He also was an adjunct clinical professor at the Pitt School of Law, where he directed the unemployment insurance practicum until the pandemic forced the program to cancel in-person classes.

Stember described a union as a representative democracy, where members will elect representatives who will then sit down and bargain with the University in good faith. But if the University and the union reach an impasse, the PLRB may have to step in.

He agrees that state law says the University must bargain over wages, hours and working conditions. For example, tenure and benefits fit under those categories, but there’s also room for debate, he said.

“There’s some gray areas where the parties are probably going to bump heads, disagree over whether something falls within wages, hours and working conditions,” Stember said.

He added that bargaining over wages and hours are clearer cut, but working conditions leave room for interpretation. The issues of vaccines and mask mandates are an example.

“Pitt may say, ‘That goes to the health and safety of the campus, it’s within management’s rights,’ and they don’t have to bargain over it,” Stember said. 

And there are some issues unique to universities, such as academic freedom and tenure. But Pitt isn’t starting from scratch, he said. The University has experience working with other unions on campus, which could help guide the bargaining process, he added. Besides the new faculty union, about 800 staff members are represented by six different unions at Pitt.

Stember said he believes Pitt will quickly get used to working with the faculty union, but the bargaining process could take some time. The University also may find, through the bargaining process, that there are some benefits to having a faculty union.

“No employer likes it at first, but all of them seem to get used to it,” Stember said. “I mean, this wasn’t done for the benefit of the employer, this was done for the benefit of the faculty. But there are some benefits, I think, that employers find to having a union to deal with. At this point, Pitt may have been having a hard time finding them. I’m not saying they’re gonna love it but … you can live with it.”

He said the bargaining process “will be a monster. (Pitt) is a big place — a lot of different issues, a lot of different departments, a lot of things to deal with. It’ll take a while.”

Stember said that it’s too soon to say how long the bargaining process will be.

“I would be keeping time with a calendar, not a watch,” Stember said.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042. Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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