By SUSAN JONES
It’s been just over a year since Pitt faculty voted to be represented by the United Steelworkers union. Since then, the new union and Pitt’s administration have been working on a collective bargaining agreement, with the bargaining committee issuing periodic updates and the administration staying mostly silent.
In the past few weeks, this largely behind-the-scenes process has moved more out into the open with a protest by some faculty union members at a bargaining session on Oct. 27 and a pointed rebuke of the union by University Senate officers at this week’s Faculty Assembly meeting over the role of shared governance going forward and a perceived lack of transparency.
There are frustrations on all sides.
Tyler Bickford, who leads the union’s bargaining committee, said the protest grew out of the union’s frustration over the pace of negotiations, particularly on job security issues.
“The administration has told us that those job security issues are also something that’s a priority for them to make progress on in negotiations, but we really haven’t seen evidence of that in their proposals or at the bargaining table,” Bickford said.
At issue is the insecurity many faculty who are on short-term contracts have as they await renewals each year or semester, he said. In Pitt’s system, most contracts renew on Sept. 1, although classes usually start a week earlier, which sometimes leaves these faculty without access to email, IDs, library resources and even classrooms before classes start.
Bickford said last week’s rally involved about 150 faculty standing outside the bargaining room in Posvar Hall as the administration’s team entered and then the faculty filing silently through the room. He said after that they did reach a tentative agreement on “an article on facilities and support, and that would ensure that we all have access to the resources that we need to do our jobs.”
On the larger job security issue, Bickford said the union has proposed having longer contract terms and contracts that renew automatically. “If the faculty are doing their jobs and there’s work for them to do, they should just continue doing their jobs without having to reapply for them,” he said.
“The administration has told us that those job security issues are also something that’s a priority for them to make progress on in negotiations, but we really haven’t seen evidence of that in their proposals or at the bargaining table,” he said. “So I think it was really good for a broader faculty to have a chance to communicate directly with the administration’s bargaining team, to show them that this is something that people are paying attention to and really want to make progress on.”
Senate President Robin Kear and Vice President Kris Kanthak, who are both part of the bargaining unit, said at Faculty Assembly they were concerned the protest was not announced to everyone in the unit.
“I find this to be opaque and exclusive,” Kear said. “The union meetings of the elected leadership, the Council of Representatives, are not open nor do they have published minutes. There have not been union meetings updating the membership on the progress of the bargaining committee, and that is also not transparent to me.”
Kanthak said she was an early supporter of the union because she thought the administration could be more transparent, but now she’s concerned the union is no more transparent about what they’re doing on her behalf.
“I thought (the union) would be a force for transparency, and I was dead wrong,” she said. “I understand the irony that I loudly spoke in favor of a union when it was excluding my med school colleagues. And now that it’s excluding me too, all of a sudden I’ve learned my lesson. And so to my med school colleagues here and everywhere else, I apologize. I was wrong.”
Bickford noted that they have sent out regular updates on progress the bargaining unit has made, but he chose not to comment on why all members weren’t informed about the protest.
Shared governance issues
The union’s rally last week was just one of the issues Kear and other Senate officers spoke out about at Faculty Assembly.
Kear said she has deep concerns about the affect of partial faculty unionization on shared governance. She and others noted that the School of Medicine faculty — who number nearly 2,500 — are not part of the bargaining unit, which includes around 3,335 faculty. This leaves a large portion of faculty who won’t be covered by a collective bargaining agreement but who are represented in shared governance.
“I have found that a great division has been introduced into our faculty by the creation of bargaining unit members and those classified as managers,” she said. “I see this division impacting Senate committee work and even the work of my own faculty governing unit in the library system. Faculty who are managers find it problematic to participate in discussions that may or may not pertain to union issues or union updates in faculty meetings. This impacts the ability to have open discussion in our committees, with administrators or those faculty who are managers who feel that they cannot participate.”
This issue came to a head this week when the provost’s office contacted Kear to say that after discussion with the union, a Faculty Assembly agenda item on the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) policy should be removed and administration officials would not be able to attend the assembly meeting to discuss the policy.
Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer, said the union objected to the policy being presented by management.
Kear said the issue of Pitt administrators not being able to talk in Senate committees also has come up in Faculty Affairs and Budget Policies. She noted that the IPA policy and other issues, such as including diversity and community engaged scholarship work in tenure and promotion decisions, have worked their way through the shared governance process and are now stuck because of the union. She believes that if the administration and the union want to alter a policy for the bargaining unit, it should be done after the passage by shared governance.
“The preservation of our robust system of shared governance is a priority for me,” Kear said. “Removing the IPA agreement from the agenda, because of an agreement between the administration and the union erodes that system. It is the University Senate president who sets the agenda and that includes the Senate committee priorities where this is one is coming from. Neither the administration nor the union has the authority to add or remove any item from our agenda. It undermines our system of shared governance and treats our existing apparatus as an auxiliary structure, as opposed to something central to the functioning of the University.”
The issue, Washington said, is direct dealing, as in whether management can talk to members of the bargaining unit about mandatory subjects of bargaining without the union being involved.
“Shared governance is a huge part of what we do at this university,” Washington said. “It’s kind of the bedrock. It’s built into everything that we do. Throughout this negotiation, we’ve been going along as though everything just kind of continued and the shared governance process wasn’t going to be part of (the union’s) view of what was direct dealing. That was our understanding.”
“They are now taking the position that it is direct dealing — you need to cease and desist from dealing directly with the faculty that are in the bargain unit in shared governance,” she said. “And specifically, by participating in such things as Faculty Assembly, and other shared governance committees. So in other words, they kind of said to us if there are faculty members who are in the bargaining unit on a shared governance committee, then the administration can’t interact with them.”
Bickford stressed repeatedly in an interview that the union is the exclusive representative for the bargaining unit on mandatory issues of wages, benefits and terms and conditions of work. The problem is the “terms and conditions of work” issue is not clearly defined. He would not comment specifically on the IPA policy. Kear said she believes the union “wants to move far outside of mandatory subjects of bargaining and into broader areas that are in our shared governance purview.”
“I fear that the faculty union wants to replace and usurp shared governance as it has existed at Pitt for 81 years,” she continued. “The faculty union does not speak for all the people that shared governance represents. It does not even speak for all of the PItt faculty. We do, and that is what we are elected to do.”
Bickford did say there are all sorts of areas working through shared governance that are not wages, benefits and conditions of work, and the union is in discussions with the administration about how shared governance can work alongside the union.
Washington said the administration doesn’t necessarily agree with everything the union thinks is a subject of mandatory bargaining. But the administration is walking a fine line because the union has threatened unfair labor charges if they participate in direct dealing on issues the union classifies as under the bargaining agreement.
“Robust conversation between shared governance and administration has always been something that I thought was really helpful,” she said. “But definitely during this interim period, it’s a little more difficult for us if the union is going to take the position that we can’t talk.”
“I think there should be multiple channels for people to express what is important to them,” Kear said in an interview after the meeting. “And if they can do that through their union, great, and if they want to do that through shared governance, great, we’re happy to have them there. There are strengths to both ways of participating.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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