Uniting in Pittsburgh: Pitt’s faculty and student unions past and present


John Hamilton

John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

Twenty-five years ago, Pitt’s faculty tried — and failed — to form a union after hitting problems with the administration and a lack of agreement among faculty.

Now, the faculty are trying again, calling for higher wages and job security through a union. This time, organizers say they have the cooperation and inclusiveness —as well as the support of the city — to make the effort successful.

Academic faculty city-wide have been pushing for  unions, making it a prime atmosphere for Pitt’s campaign, according to Maria Somma, organizing director for the International Union at United Steelworkers.

USW, a Pittsburgh-based local and international union organizer, has one successful campaign under its belt at Point Park University and is working to facilitate faculty union campaigns at several other nearby universities, including Robert Morris, Chatham and Pitt.

Somma said these efforts, as well as the increasing trend toward corporatization of education, create an ideal atmosphere for a successful union campaign at Pitt.

“You’ve got more and more corporatization and more and more people in the upper echelons looking at universities not as education … but as a business model,” Somma said. “I think it’s going to work because people are committed to this, to change.”

In January, Pitt faculty and graduate student workers officially announced their union campaigns. USW is facilitating both campaigns with legal and financial support as well as physical materials, such as shirts and buttons. Somma said there are an estimated 5,000 faculty members and an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 graduate student employees at Pitt who could potentially join their respective unions.

Peter Campbell, an assistant professor of English at Pit and an organizer of the faculty union campaign, said attendance at the campaign’s monthly coffee and happy hours show an increase in interest.

“The academic labor movement has real momentum in the city [of Pittsburgh] right now,” Campbell said.

Though the faculty and the graduate student employee campaigns communicate and collaborate, they remain separate efforts with distinct goals. Campbell said the faculty union efforts are based on a desire for increased job security and openness about the process of promoting and retaining faculty members, so faculty do not have to worry about sudden or unexpected termination.

The graduate student employee union will focus on a higher, livable wage, equal access to health care and the enforcement of contracts, as Hillary Lazar, fourth-year sociology graduate student and an organizer of the graduate student employee union effort, said, many graduate student employees work well beyond their contracted hours.

Campbell couldn’t provide an exact number of faculty members supportive of the union efforts, but said the campaign has talked with “hundreds” of faculty about the union. Lazar said the focus of the graduate student worker campaign is currently on taking the first step and building interest in the union. According to Lazar, the graduate student employee campaign has contacts in more than 20 different departments, with active participation from many of those departments.

Somma, Campbell and Lazar said there is no current timeline for the efforts to send out cards or hold a vote.

Former Vice Chancellor of Communications for Pitt, Ken Service, told The Pitt News in February that Pitt’s community has made “great strides” in communication between administration and faculty. Current Vice Chancellor of Communications Susan Rogers declined to update this statement.

“We remain confident that the best way to continue to advance our mission is for the entire University community to continue to work together in this cooperative and respectful manner,” Service said in an email in February.

In the Past

Pitt faculty attempted to create a union several times in the 1970s and ’90s, and though there were several union votes, none of the efforts earned the necessary majority vote to form a union.

Phil Wion, one of the lead organizers of the former union campaigns at Pitt, said the main reason previous efforts failed was a lack of solidarity among the full rank of faculty. A successful union effort, he said, must create a sense of common cause.

Wion, a Pitt professor emeritus of English, said faculty held the first union vote on Pitt’s campus in 1976 under the American Federation of Teachers, a faculty union organizer similar to USW.

Wion said the AFT did not win the union vote in part because some faculty believed the union should be united under the American Association of University Professors, another academic union organizer, for which Wion currently serves as the secretary and treasurer.

The AFT focused heavily on economic issues and the labor movement, causing many faculty members to vote for either the AAUP or for no organizing agent at all, according to Wion.

Wion and the other campaign organizers then began a lengthy process to merge the AFT and AAUP, which resulted in the formation of the United Faculty of the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. Following two years of campaigning, the UF filed for a union vote in 1984.

Around the same time, Pitt administration challenged the election to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board based on the 1980 Yeshiva decision. The Yeshiva University decision ruled that full-time faculty fell under the position of managers at private universities, and therefore were not eligible to unionize. Pitt was the first public university to uphold the Yeshiva decision, according to Wion.

Despite the Yeshiva decision, the union campaign held a vote for part-time faculty in 1987. The vote succeeded but the union would exclude full-time faculty, so the campaign did not proceed.

According to Wion, in 1990 the Board then overturned the decision to make full-time faculty ineligible.

“In November 1990, the full board reversed the hearing examiner’s ruling and said that full-time faculty were not managers under Pennsylvania law and therefore were eligible to unionize,” Wion said. “The full unit was put back together.”

The UF then held another union vote in early 1991, but lost in part due to a lack of solidarity among the higher- and lower-level faculty. Wion said a number of the respected and financially stable faculty voted against the union, which would have benefited the lower-level faculty by giving them increased job security and influence.

“There were various arguments, one was that [a union] was not needed, that everything was relatively fine. But it was also partly haves against have-nots,” Wion said. “Those who were relatively well-paid and comfortable and felt that their voices were being heard, often were not so sure that they would retain their advantages if [other] faculty were part of this broad bargaining unit.”

Why it’s different now

For a successful union effort, Wion said there must be common interest in the campaign among not only adjunct and part-time faculty, but among well-paid and already-tenured faculty members as well.

“The difficulty in creating a sense of community interest, that was real and that contributed I think to the outcome [of previous union efforts],” Wion said. “It may be that it’ll be easier this time around to create that sense of common cause.”

To increase solidarity among all faculty, the current union campaign is focused on incorporating faculty of all ranks and from all campuses, according to Campbell.

“Our major interest is just to create a union so that faculty of all ranks at the University of Pittsburgh can work together and speak with one voice,” Campbell said. “It’s really important to emphasize that the University of Pittsburgh [union] would be all faculty of all rank and all campuses.”

Lazar said working conditions have also changed, affecting faculty members and graduate student employees of all ranks. Universities are increasingly focusing on business models instead of education models, resulting in dissatisfaction among University workers, according to Lazar.

“The conditions are different now,” Lazar said. “There’s a far greater degree of dissatisfaction and calling into question this corporatization across industries, but particularly within the academy.”

According to Campbell, the push to secure university faculty jobs is part of the nationwide backlash against insecure working conditions.

“In Pittsburgh, as in everywhere else in the U.S., there’s an increasing trend toward contingency in employment,” Campbell said. “This is a really important time for faculty to come together.”

Kai Pang, a Pitt senior philosophy and economics major and an intern at USW, said he sees commitment to the current union effort not only at the level of faculty and graduate students, but at the undergraduate level as well.

Though undergraduate students are not directly involved in either of the union campaigns, Pang said undergraduate support can assure the faculty that the students stand behind them and “have their back,” allowing faculty to pursue the union with the knowledge that the students will support them should they receive any backlash.

“One of the biggest reasons why I believe that the organizing efforts are going to work is because of the solidarity we’ve been building between the students, graduate employees and faculty members,” Pang said. “It’s important we stand in solidarity.”

Supporting the union efforts benefits the students as well because students’ quality of education is impacted by the stability — or instability — of their instructors, according to Lazar.

“That same process, that corporatization [of universities], is affecting undergraduate students as well,” Lazar said. “We do have the collective power of these tandem campaigns, both the faculty and the graduate student workers, but we also have the support of the undergraduates.”

Though the union efforts have not yet left the organizing stage, Campbell and Lazar said they hope the unions will give both the faculty and graduate student employees the ability to bargain with the University on equal footing.

“At this stage, what we’re trying to do is just get a seat at the table,” Lazar said. “By calling for a union, we’re just saying that we want to have access to the voice that’s necessary to be in dialogue with the administration.”