Pitt attempting to obstruct grad student union election, organizers claim


Dale Shoemaker | Former Managing Editor

Pitt graduate student employees announced their plan to unionize in January 2016.

By Emily Wolfe, Assistant News Editor

The United Steelworkers and the Graduate Student Organizing Committee expressed disappointment Tuesday in what they called Pitt’s attempts at “voter suppression.”

After the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled last week that grad students have the right to hold a union election, Pitt has pushed for the election to be held on upper campus, in the Biomedical Science Tower or Benedum Hall, according to a press release from the USW.

Organizers believe the election should be held in a more convenient, central location for voters like the Cathedral of Learning or the William Pitt Union.

Emily Ackerman, an engineering graduate student cited in the press release, said it would be uncomfortable for members of the engineering department to vote in a location like Benedum, close to administrators in the Swanson School of Engineering.

“Many of my colleagues would feel uncomfortable or intimidated voting in a building whose common spaces are so hyper-visible and open to the administrators of the School of Engineering,” Ackerman said. “The William Pitt Union is a more accessible and private space for voting.”

Joe Miksch, a Pitt spokesman, said the University’s proposed sites would be more convenient for many graduate students, and that few graduate students work in the WPU, the USW’s proposed location for voting.

“The Union is home to very few graduate students,” Miksch said in a Wednesday email. “Holding elections there runs counter to our intent, which is to support all eligible graduate students in their right to vote.”

Miksch noted that the final location for the election will be decided by the PLRB.

The USW also condemned Pitt’s hiring of the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr, which has represented the University throughout graduate students’ attempts to unionize. Ballard Spahr’s website advertises the firm’s “union avoidance” services and says it offers counsel “on employer rights and responsibilities during the critical pre-election period.”

“Because we have represented management in hundreds of union-organizing attempts, we know how to help clients maintain a union-free environment,” the website reads.

Ballard Spahr represented Penn State when graduate students there made their own attempt at forming a union last year. The Penn State graduate students won the fight to hold an election but ultimately voted against unionization.

[Read: Labor board affirms Pitt grad students have right to unionize]

Jess Kamm Broomell, a USW spokeswoman, said organizers are working with the PLRB and the University to determine when and where the election will occur, but that no date has been set yet.

“The graduate student employees have waited more than a year for the opportunity to hold their union election,” Broomell said. “We hope to have the vote as soon as possible.”

This article has been updated to include University comment.