Grad union election issues headed back to PLRB in May


The graduate student union organizing efforts are once again headed for a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing, which will push any possibility of a new election until at least the fall.

The PLRB ruled in the fall that Pitt engaged in unfair labor practices during the graduate student unionization election in April 2019. Pitt’s legal representatives, Ballard Spahr, said the University did not use any unfair labor practices and asked that a proposed order by Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmerich sent on Sept. 18 be “set aside” in favor of the University. Pitt in October filed exceptions to the ruling and asked for new written briefs and oral arguments in the case.

The final vote tally during the April election was 675 votes in favor of the union with 712 votes against it.

On Feb. 18, a three-person PLRB panel ordered oral arguments in the case — to take place May 28 — to decide two specific issues:

  • If the University has the burden to prove that unfair practices, if committed, did not materially affect the outcome of the election.
  • Whether the PLRB should cease its practice of permitting watchers at elections from openly keeping a list of employees who voted. (The union organizers had argued that this practice was intimidating to voters.)

The University, in a statement, said it “believes that the complex questions presented by this case merit full consideration, including through both written briefs and oral arguments, which is why we requested them when we filed our exceptions in October. The Steelworkers received a copy of our request at that time and did not oppose it.”

Jeff Cech, an organizer for the United Steelworkers, which is representing the grad students, said, “I think that (the University is) following a union avoidance playbook That says, ‘delay, delay, delay,’ no matter how much you have to spend in tuition and tax dollars to try to break the momentum of the union. It sure feels that at every turn, where they’re given an opportunity to throw a brick in the gears, they certainly do.”

He added that the union doesn’t “want this to go on any longer than it needs to,” so it’s hoping for a quick decision after the oral arguments.

The order gives parties 15 minutes to present their oral arguments on each of the two topics.

“It’s not like they’re going to be able to present some grand revelation of great legal bearing that will blow the minds of legal scholars everywhere. It’s really kind of just one more way to, to throw molasses on this thing,” he said.

Union organizers had previously hoped to schedule a new election before the end of the semester, but will have to await another PLRB decision after the May hearing before anything can happen.

Broken hearts

Graduate student union organizers voiced their displeasure with Pitt’s administration on Feb. 14 with a not-very-loving Valentine.

A group of nearly 50 people gathered on Schenley Plaza in the cold as organizers read the inscription from a large cardboard “broken” heart.

The inscription read, in part:

“We must confess, our love for Pitt is undying although it’s clearly not reciprocal.

“You broke our heart when you opposed our employee status in 2018. …

“You broke our heart when you cheated during our election last year.

“And, you continue to break our heart as you delay, delay, delay to prevent us from holding a FAIR election.”

The demonstrators on Feb. 14 took their “broken heart” to the Cathedral of Learning, where they performed a protest song to the tune of Pitt’s alma mater outside of Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s office. A person at the office said Gallagher was not in his office at the time.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times and Donovan Harrell is a writer for the UTimes. Reach them at or


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