By DONOVAN HARRELL
The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board will mail out official ballots on Aug. 27 to 3,000 Pitt faculty, who will have until October to decide if they want to unionize.
And faculty are starting to weigh in on the decision.
The nearly 3,000 faculty members eligible to vote in the union election will receive ballots by mail on Aug. 27 and will have until close of business on Oct. 12 to return their ballots to the PLRB’s Harrisburg office, according to a PLRB order on July 16.
If voters don’t receive their ballot by Sept. 13, the PLRB is urging them to contact the office immediately. Organizers with the United Steelworkers — which is representing the faculty union — are urging faculty to send in their votes at least a week before the October deadline.
The ballots will be counted starting at 10 a.m. Oct. 19 and end on Oct. 21 if necessary.
Melinda Ciccocioppo, a union organizer and lecturer in the Department of Psychology, said, “It’s about time that faculty are able to make their voices heard.”
Ciccocioppo, who has been an organizer for four years, said her experience as an adjunct faculty member at Pitt and other institutions showed her that she and other faculty have been dealing with a broken system.
“And that a big part of that was that faculty don’t really have any real decision-making power,” Ciccocioppo said. “Our form of shared governance doesn’t really give us the ability to sit down as equals with administration and craft the policies that dictate our working conditions”
Former Senate Council President Chris Bonneau said Pitt’s shared governance process had helped improve policies on intellectual property, sexual harassment, academic freedom, and more.
“As someone who was initially a vocal skeptic of shared governance (thinking it was merely a mechanism for faculty to act as “yes people” for the administration) but who has been intricately involved in shared governance over the past few years, I can also say that there have been several instances where we have been able to work behind-the-scenes to prevent things from even coming up publicly,” Bonneau said.
Ilia Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, added that Pitt administrators have worked hard at trying to improve contracts for faculty.
One of these improvements, he said, is Pitt’s implementation of one-, three-, and five-year contracts.
“I think of that kind of contract, which Pitt did without the union, as being really something that’s important to providing people stability with their jobs that aren’t on the tenure track,” Murtazashvili said. “From my perspective, the union really has to come up and say concretely what the administration hasn’t done that it should be doing. And I just don’t think (the union has) done an effective job showing what they can do, or even really understanding what the administration has done that has been beneficial for faculty.”
However, one issue that Pitt hasn’t handled well, Ciccocioppo said, is COVID-19 vaccinations. She was especially critical of Pitt administrators’ hesitancy to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for students and employees, even though Senate Council members passed a resolution on May 21 that encouraged the University to require vaccinations for people planning to return to campus.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in April that mandating a vaccine is not a straightforward process. Pitt would face several legal hurdles. Instead, Pitt leaders are offering multiple incentives for people to get vaccinated before they return to campus.
Pitt students and employees planning to return to campus also must submit proof of vaccination. People who don’t disclose their vaccination status with proof will also have to take routine COVID-19 tests.
“There are faculty who are really concerned,” Ciccocioppo said. “Especially faculty members, like myself, with unvaccinated children. I’m going to have to go into a classroom with 400 students, and that’s scary to know that many of them are not going to be vaccinated.”
And the lack of a vaccine mandate is just one issue that hasn’t been resolved despite overwhelming faculty support, Ciccocioppo said.
“The University Senate and the Faculty Assembly hae been working on the issue of say, pay, for adjuncts in particular, for years,” Ciccocioppo said. “Every year, the salary benchmarking reports come out, and appointment-stream faculty are at the bottom of the list as compared with our peer institutions. And administration just keeps saying, ‘We want everyone to be at the median,’ but they’re not doing it. We’ve tried the current system, right? It’s not working. What we need is a solution that involves all of us.”
Union organizers have been especially critical on Twitter about Pitt’s policies on salaries and vaccines. A tweet posted on Aug. 3 said the lack of a vaccine mandate puts faculty members’ health at risk.
“Vaccination is the most effective defense against COVID-19. Tho #PittAdmin acknowledges this, there’s no vaccine mandate,” the tweet said. “Faculty have to safeguard their health and well-being w/o any help from Pitt #WhosGotOurBack?”
Some Pitt faculty pushed back on this tweet, including Allison Shertzer, an associate professor in the Department of Economics, who said the tweet is a “bad faith” criticism of the University because state legislators are actively opposing vaccine mandates.
“Instead of honestly presenting the difficult constraints the University faces, the union instead suggested that the administration isn’t adopting a mandate because of a lack of concern for the faculty,” Shertzer said in an email. “It is concerning to me that the union would make such a bad faith argument, especially when the University’s COVID response has been consistently exemplary. The plan for the fall includes incentives for vaccination as well as a continuation of the mask requirement that has been in place all year. We require the support of the legislature to do much more.”
Murtazashvili said union organizers have brought up valid concerns about issues affecting Pitt faculty, including a lack of diversity among faculty and childcare options and assistance with parental leave. However, he’s unsure that a faculty union would help improve this and other issues involving pay and tenure promotion
He also criticized the union’s messaging, calling it adversarial and filled with “misinformation,” which can make it hard for faculty to feel confident sharing their opinions on unionization.
“You get a lot of people who are very critical of the Union but who just don’t want to say it publicly,” he said. “I think part of the issue with this union campaign is that the organizers haven’t done enough of a job to get out there and talk to people who might not be sympathetic to unions. Because if they did, I think this whole approach to their messaging would have been different.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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