Pitt professors talk faculty unionization at Frick Fine Arts


Anne Amundson | Staff Photographer

History of art and architecture associate professor Mrinalini Rajagopalan spoke about the inequalities women encounter when being promoted to professorship.

By Jonathan Kunitsky, Staff Writer

At a town hall event in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium Wednesday night, Tyler Bickford, Pitt associate professor of English, spoke to a room of more than 40 union supporters about efforts by professors and graduate students to form a faculty union.

“In order to form a union for anyone, the only way to achieve this is to have it for everyone,” he said.

Undergraduates and graduates, as well as tenured and non-tenured faculty, attended the town hall discussion. It ran for two hours and consisted of faculty panelists speaking on the faculty’s efforts to join the United Steelworkers Union, an international organization that represents more than 10,000 academic workers in both the United States and Canada.

In addition to Bickford, English professor Jennifer Lee, School of Social Work adjunct professor Carl Redwood, public health assistant professor Marian Jarlenski and history of art and architecture associate professor Mrinalini Rajagopalan also participated as panelists. The discussion was moderated by Ruth Mosten, an associate professor of history of art and architecture.

Graduate students and faculty members officially announced their similar efforts to partner with the USW to create their respective workers unions in 2016. A Pitt faculty union would represent faculty in all departments and would act as an intermediary between tenured and non-tenured professors to negotiate appointments, working conditions and benefits.

Organizers have been working with United Steelworkers to gather support for a vote through authorization cards. If 30 percent of Pitt’s faculty signs authorization cards, they can then apply to hold a union election with the labor board. Bickford said faculty have been collecting signature cards since January and will be able to file for an election before the end of this year, though the election might not actually happen until the spring, possibly fall.

The most recent attempt to unionize Pitt faculty occured in 1996, according to the University Times, but was suspended after United Faculty organizers failed to collect union authorization cards from a majority of Pitt faculty. Pitt faculty members had also attempted to unionize in 1991 and 1976, but those attempts failed as well.

At the town hall, audience members were able to stand and ask questions or submit them by paper for the moderator to read. Attendees asked whether tuition would be affected, how the hiring of student researchers would change and what the timeline of union formation currently looks like.

One reason why faculty members wish to form a union is to ask for higher wages. In response to an audience member asking if tuition would increase as a result of this, Robin J. Sowers, a representative from the United Steelworkers Union and a faculty member at Chatham, spoke about how union formation is not correlated with tuition increases.

“The trends you see at Pitt are relatively kind,” Sowers said. “And like in other institutions, tuition increases have never been driven by increase in costs. They happen every year.”

Senior anthropology major Kate Eldridge asked whether a union would benefit people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and women at the University. Multiple panelists answered this question, including Lee, who touched conversations she had with a specific women’s committee within the union.

“[The faculty] are all so isolated from each other,” she said. “That is one of the stratagems, is to keep us apart from each other, not talking to each other, not sharing experiences. And in the course of that small meeting, many stories emerged of harassment in the workplace here at Pitt.”

Rajagopalan commented on the inequalities women face in being promoted to professorship at the University, while Redwood added that a union would also allow them to look into forming a civil rights union.

“What the committee can do as a part of a union is help raise awareness and also look at the comparison between the University of Pittsburgh and other universities,” he said. “We can do much better.”

Also invited were Provost Ann Cudd, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Senior Vice Chancellor for the health sciences Arthur Levine, though they were not present for the discussion. Chairs and name cards on the left side of the stage made ready for their attendance were left empty throughout the discussion.

“The current power structure of these institutions is that it’s easy for administrators to make decisions that ignore the financial needs of the faculty,” Bickford said. “A union will create a structural force that requires administrators to actually take into consideration … the financial needs of faculty and the bottom ranks.”


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