Union bargaining chair addresses concerns about shared governance

Three people at table in Posvar Hall


After weeks of communication impasses regarding the current and future relationship between shared governance, the Union of Pitt Faculty and Pitt’s administration, Tyler Bickford, the union’s bargaining committee chair, visited the Feb. 15 Faculty Assembly meeting to address concerns and emphasize the ongoing relevance of shared governance as a voice for faculty, staff and students. 

Addressing the Assembly members and interested faculty gathered in the Posvar Hall conference room and those participating remotely, Bickford summarized areas of progress in union bargaining.

He highlighted common ground between faculty, shared governance and the bargaining unit, and heard criticisms, including the perception that shared governance is being marginalized in the bargaining process and the frustration over the School of Medicine faculty’s exclusion from the union.

Senate Council President Robin Kear thanked Bickford for accepting Faculty Assembly’s invitation, noting she was hopeful his views “will help us to clarify issues that have been facing shared governance and that we have been discussing for the past few months.

“We have been trying to navigate between the administration and the union around mandatory subjects of bargaining through our committees while being cognizant of the rights of both sides to continue, and to continue open and transparent shared governance for the Pitt community,” she said.

Taking a similarly collegial tone, Bickford thanked the Senate executive committee for the opportunity.

“We've had some productive conversations over the last couple of months, and I'm glad to be here to talk with you all today,” he said, adding that “faculty governance is a core value of our union.

“We voted to form a union because faculty wanted to have more of a say over our jobs, which is a key element of what governance means,” he said. “I also think it's important, just to be clear, that shared governance to me means activities that happen at all levels of the University — from individual teachers making decisions about their courses, to department committees making decisions about curricula, to faculty serving in leadership roles.”

Bickford emphasized the positive developments as the unionization process and bargaining negotiations moved forward in 2022 and into this year.

“Now that we have a union, the administration can’t make changes to key aspects of our jobs without securing our formal agreement. So that's the key change that we voted on,” he said. “It's a really significant form of faculty power. And I think it's important to say that our union isn't going to compromise on … that core right. That's what it means to have a union. But I think that within that there's a lot of room for us to move forward collaboratively, and with fewer disruptions.”

Bickford specified three key areas of discussion: “mandatory” subjects of bargaining; “permissive” subjects of bargaining that impact faculty and staff; and local governance, which he called a “key element in these conversations.”

Bickford explained the state of Pennsylvania requirement that university administrations negotiate terms only with union representatives. This provision, which he called “central” to the union’s ability to bargain, eliminates short-circuiting the process in a scenario where the administration learns the minimum terms faculty members would likely accept.

“I think it makes sense that were the administration permitted to hash out deals with different groups or to poll the faculty to see what they'd be willing to accept, that this would undermine our ability to bargain,” Bickford said.

“They could just say, ‘Oh well, we know that the faculty will accept this, so we're not willing to move any further’ and we get the kind of minimum possible deal,” he added. “Or they could say, ‘Here’s an agreement we already negotiated. Take it or leave it.’ That kind of exclusive representative is built into labor law for a good reason to empower unions to negotiate the best agreements.”

With that established, Bickford added that nothing prevents faculty members from talking with each other or with their supervisors about any topic, or from supervisors sharing “factual information” with employees.

“There's also nothing preventing anyone, whether in the bargaining unit or out of it, from discussing changes to policies that affect students, staff or faculty outside of the bargaining unit,” he said. “Now, I understand that's imperfect and that's one of the issues (Senate Council) raised. But I do think last fall this was coming up, and I think it's important to say that … all of those areas can certainly move forward.”

Decisions based on academia, curricula or programs are also not mandatory subjects of bargaining, he said, noting they are among topics shared governance structures are “very well suited to advocate over” and have long and robust histories of negotiating.

“Once we have a contract, we'll have an agreement that spells all of this out, and many of the disruptions that we've been seeing will go away because there won't (be) any questions about what the administration can or cannot do,” Bickford explained, adding the bargaining committee is working with administration toward an agreement clarifying these parameters, “so if they are saying they have questions about what their legal obligations are, again, we can spell those out and come to an agreement.”

Meet and discuss

The law defines “permissive” rather than mandatory subjects as managerial prerogatives, such as the pending closure of the English Language Institute. Before making such impactful changes, an employer is required to “meet and discuss” the proposed changes with union representatives.

To avoid extensive discussions that may or may not bear fruit, the bargaining committee has proposed a “streamlined” process that would allow existing shared governance venues such as Senate committees to fulfill the meet-and-discuss obligations under most circumstances.

“We do have these legal rights, but we actually think that the kind of existing ongoing processes that happen at the University are good places for meeting and discussing to happen,” Bickford said.

“I think it's important to say that our proposal to the administration is to waive some of the union's legal rights in order to allow existing governance practices to continue — that we value them, and we think that they fulfill some of the roles that in other types of workplaces may or may not exist.”

The administration hasn’t yet responded to the proposal, he said, adding that “large majority” of cases directly addressing recent issues, such as bargaining unit faculty being excluded from some policy and budgeting committee meetings, are likely to fall within the “permissive” subject parameters. The committee changes resulted from the administration’s refusal to discuss bargaining issues in committees with unit members present.

Local governance and common ground

“That brings us to local governance,” he said, noting that “most governance happens at the local levels in schools, campuses, departments and programs. For the contract that we're working on negotiating, we have proposed to delegate a lot of the work of determining things like performance standards or promotion processes — things that will necessarily vary by field and department and discipline — to the existing governance structures and schools and departments.”

The contract would spell out some broad standards, Bickford explained, “and then, say, there's going to be a lot of variation, and the existing processes — if they're democratic, if they're transparent, if they're enforceable — can fill in those details, so that we can have that flexibility. I don't think anyone thinks it makes sense to have complete uniformity across every department.”

Until the final contract is ratified, the bargaining unit has proposed that local governance continue in its regular role. “If there are going to be changes made to things like mandatory subjects — that again would need to be negotiated — but in the final contract those changes could happen within broad standards. And the administration has not responded to that proposal.”

Bickford, who said the administration has moved forward with what he called the “most sort of strict interpretation of their obligations under the law, and the most disruptive interpretation of those,” told Kear he was pleased by her report that the administration is perhaps “revisiting that and imagining some more flexible approaches.”

Concluding his presentation, Bickford said he thinks the bargaining unit and shared governance representatives “all want the same thing, which is more of a say over our jobs.”

“We also have been making real progress at the bargaining table in winning improvements in kind of core areas around job security, contract lengths, the renewal process, academic freedom, the grievance procedure. We are making progress at the bargaining table on things that are kind of core priorities for large numbers of faculty,” he said. “Having a union collective bargaining doesn't replace other forms of participation and decision making, and nobody on the bargaining committee or the council of representatives thinks that it should.”

Ongoing concerns

Kear, who said she understood changes the administration made last fall were meant to avoid unfair labor practices related to direct dealing, asked Bickford to clarify his comments that changes came from proposals for shared governance to continue its regular role.

“I understand there was a letter sent in late October that sort of started these changes rolling for us,” she said.

Bickford said he didn’t mean to say the changes were in response to the unit’s proposal.

“My goal was to say that we had already tried to make proposals that would make these changes unnecessary. In the fall, we asked the administration to stop bringing us things that had already been negotiated by other groups, and to instead engage in their obligations to negotiate changes to mandatory subjects directly with us.”

The unit subsequently presented the administration with a proposal to address issues “we had that we had raised differently,” he added. “So we were trying rapidly to resolve the issue.”

Here are some of the questions Bickford fielded from Faculty Assembly representatives:

Would a committee like Benefits and Welfare be required to “meet and discuss” with the union negotiating with the Pitt Benefits office and vendors like health insurance companies?

“We would not be negotiating with vendors or the health insurance company,” Bickford replied. “We would be able to (negotiate) with Pitt’s administration over the benefits that they would be providing to members of the bargaining unit.

“And then they would have a relationship with the insurance company. … I think the majority of benefits is likely to fall under mandatory subjects, and will be negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement.”

What determines the boundaries of negotiable topics such as “contractual language” vs. more meat-and-potatoes-type issues and circumstances?

“I think once we have our first contract … the boundaries of negotiations will be a lot clearer because the contract will in effect, (say what has been) negotiated and then kind of within that, people are free to do their thing, right? The contract kind of sets broad standards, and then people can move forward,” Bickford explained. “(For example) nobody would be negotiating changes to the contract once we had a contract …

“(With a finalized contract), I actually think a lot of these questions will kind of go away or become obvious, whereas now, at least in theory, in some areas that are mandatory subjects, it might be that any change to any sentence in hundreds of pages of policies are mandatory subjects of bargaining.”

Is there some specific vision or plan on how you see the union and shared governance working together? Is it like placing people on each other's committees or specific examples of things you would have along those lines?

“In our proposal, if we were going to say that this meet-and-discuss obligation could take place through existing Senate committees or other structures, (we would) designate someone we could train (on) the kind of things they'd be looking for, so that we would know the things that we care about were being attended to,” Bickford explained.

“I don't think that would require creating a new formal role on any of these committees. (More likely) we would kind of tap someone on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, would you be interested in getting trained and filling this role for us?’ So that if something does come up, you can kind of flag it and bring it to … the rest of the union.”

Concerns that the School of Medicine, which is not part of the union, will not fare as well in negotiating with the administration as it has with the pre-union shared governance model.

“I want to really acknowledge the School of Medicine’s concerns,” Bickford said. “I think that makes sense and I don't want to be glib about this, but if the administration is willing to give us a counter on academic freedom that would be enforceable through a grievance procedure that would have clearly enumerated protections for academic freedom that would apply to all faculty, including part-time faculty, then it's hard for me to see (we are) leaving the School of Medicine behind.

“But the flip side is that if we can get the administration to actually move on these issues (and) finally be willing, for example, to write an academic freedom policy that would be enforceable, that seems to me like it sets the School of Medicine faculty up to say, ‘OK, you've already agreed to this, right? Why don't we implement this for us as well?’ I understand the idea about getting left behind again …

“But I also think that we can see this as a framework where if we can win improvements, which I just described a pretty major one, then that creates a new standard, and it does become quite difficult for the administration to kind of refuse to extend that to other groups.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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