Grad student employees sign union cards


Pitt students marched in support of the graduate student union last March. Kate Koenig | Senior Staff Photographer

By Nolan Roosa / Staff Writer

After a year and a half of campaigning and planning, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee is now one step closer to forming a union for graduate student employees at Pitt.

The unionization effort has been in the works since October 2015 when the committee voted to affiliate with the United Steelworkers, a national industrial union that has helped other Pittsburgh schools, such as Point Park University and Robert Morris University, to successfully unionize. At Pitt, the Committee officially announced their campaign to unionize in January 2016 at a press conference. At the same time, Pitt faculty members announced their own union campaign.

Since then, organizers estimate they have gained a broad enough support base to begin collecting union cards to gauge interest for a union among graduate student employees. They began collecting cards on Saturday at a rally and press conference. According to Sarah Hakimzadeh, an organizer with the committee, about 100 people attended the event, but she could not disclose how many people or who has signed cards.

“The press conference on Saturday was a big success,” Hakimzadeh said. “Overall, it was a really positive and energetic atmosphere, and everyone left excited to do the work that’s ahead.”

If more than 30 percent of graduate student employees sign cards of interest, USW will apply to hold an election at Pitt through the Pennsylvania Labor Board. In order to form a union and the right to collectively bargain for a labor contract with the University, a simple majority of those eligible must vote in favor of the union. There is no time constraint on reaching 30 percent support.

At Pitt, 5,281 faculty members and about 3,000 graduate student employees are eligible to sign interest cards, though the Pennsylvania Labor Board will decide who is eligible to vote in a union election.

Across the country, over 30 universities have unions for graduate student employees, including Temple and Penn State. Penn State recently began aligning itself with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents over 180,000 education professionals across the state, including teachers and support staff.

Similar to Pitt, State College is currently pushing for more graduate student employees to sign cards so they can hold a vote. The union would be established if the majority of students vote in favor. The group is looking to negotiate agreements with the university on stipends, benefits, workload and a grievance procedure.

At Pitt, graduate student employees are seeking more transparency in the decision-making process, according to a release from Saturday’s rally. They are also looking for protections against discrimination and harassment.

Hakimzadeh said the University would benefit from having a unionized graduate student body because fairer working conditions will allow them to better serve students and do innovative research.

“We’d have a real voice in decisions that affect us in the workplace,” Hakimzadeh said. “We’d be able to make sure that our working conditions are fair and that we are in the best position to serve our students as teachers and do our research at the highest level.”

University spokesperson Joe Miksch said the group has already shared their concerns with the administration.

“The University is aware of this issue and will continue to monitor developments,” Miksch said in an email. “The group of students involved in this effort have shared their concerns with University administration, and their communication is appreciated.”

But not all graduate students are on board with the plans to unionize. Leonid Mirson, a first-year medical student at Pitt, said there isn’t enough to gain — and possibly something to lose — from forming a union.

“By imposing arbitrary limits — [like] students cannot be forced to attend class for more than five hours a day — a union would only serve to weaken the University’s reputation and potentially harm students by not preparing them for future employment,” Mirson said in an email.

Although Mirson considers himself a union supporter because of its ability to help employees improve their work environment, he said students in graduate schools don’t need the same kind of work environment.

“Each graduate school has different requirements and different types of sacrifices that students need to make for it,” he said. “When students are applying to graduate schools, they have a responsibility to ensure that the school they choose is the right fit for them.”

Political science Ph.D. student Sean Craig said he is in favor of a union because graduate student employees are often overloaded with work and feel the urgency to take on multiple projects within their field. Because of this, he said, they don’t have the “greatest” mental health.

According to a Rutgers University study, union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, and unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay. Both unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom.

Craig, who said he is planning on sending in a card, said the goal of a union is not to change everything about the way graduate students work but rather just make it better.

“It’s about improving relationships in the environments of the workers,” Craig said. “If the conditions are better or more transparent, then graduate student [employees] will be more productive, get better jobs…make the University look better.”

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