Pitt to challenge grad student union election petition


Signs supporting the grad and faculty unions hang on a window in the Cathedral of Leaning. (Photo by John Hamilton / Managing Editor)

Pitt administrators have told the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board they plan challenge the graduate student petition to hold a union election, organizers said Wednesday.

Pitt will look to convince the board that graduate students aren’t employees. The labor board in February ruled that graduate students at Penn State were considered employees and could unionize.

In a post on Facebook, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee called the move an “attempt to drag out the process in hopes of busting our union.” 

Beth Shaaban, a union organizer and Ph.D. student in the department of epidemiology, said the organizers learned about the news in a conference call with Pitt administrators Wednesday. She said the University’s challenge has “made [organizers] more determined than ever to fight for our rights.”

The Facebook post also says Pitt hired a law firm the organizers say is known for “union busting.”

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick would not confirm that Pitt hired the law firm or respond to questions asking if tuition or taxpayer funds are going toward paying the lawyers. Zwick said Pitt is going through the process set by the labor board to establish their view that graduate students aren’t workers.

“The University of Pittsburgh remains committed to the success of all students, and we will continue doing what we do best: partnering with graduate students—individually and collectively—to support their growth and success,” he said.

Graduate students in October filed a petition with the labor board to hold a union election, indicating that organizers collected union cards from 30 percent of students. But Pitt maintains that graduate students are only students, not employees, a position strongly opposed by the organizers.

“Grad students researchers and teachers are considered employees in various places,” Shaaban said “It says so when we log into our pay stubs … we get a W2 IRS form from the University.”

Shaaban said GSOC and University legal representatives talked during a conference call Wednesday. The call was held so that the University could either agree with GSOC’s ability to hold an election or challenge it, she said.

“The administration could have reported at that call that they were agreeable to the election but they chose not to,” she said. “Instead, they decided to contest our ability to hold an election.”

Shaaban said the administration and GSOC will argue their cases in an upcoming labor board hearing. If the Board determines that Pitt graduate students are employees, the administration will be required to present an Excelsior list — a list filed by the employer stating the names and addresses of all eligible bargaining unit employees. The Pennsylvania Labor Board will then be able to check the filed union cards and certify if 30 percent of graduate students have signed union cards.

Shaaban said a date for the hearing is currently being arranged by both parties’ legal representatives.

“Both the Pennsylvania state law and the recent board determination are on our side, so we feel confident we will make our case and it will be very clear that grad student employees are employees,” she said.

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