Grad union organizers planning second election for this semester

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Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Grad union organizers hold signs against the windows of the Forbes Avenue sky bridge during a demonstration in December.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

After months of hearings, appeals and legal disputes between Pitt and graduate student union organizers, Pat Healy, an organizer and Ph.D. student, said the road to a possible graduate student union has been “tiring.”

“This has definitely been tiring, especially for those of us who have been organizing on this campaign for a few years now,” Healy said. “We have a hard fight ahead of us.”

But according to head organizer Jeff Cech, graduate students won’t have to wait much longer for another election.

Cech said United Steelworkers, the union aiding Pitt faculty and graduate students’ unionization efforts, hopes to hold a second union election this semester. Graduate students originally voted against unionization 712 to 675 last April — a margin of 37 votes. The second election could take place anytime from April to the 2020 fall semester, depending on the timing of a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling on whether Pitt committed unfair labor practices during the election.

Graduate student union organizers were encouraged when PLRB official Stephen Helmerich ordered a new election in a proposed September ruling. The proposed ruling said Pitt committed three unfair labor practices during the election, which potentially influenced the results. Union organizers began to prepare for an election last fall, but Pitt filed a formal exception to Helmerich’s ruling. Since Pitt challenged the proposed ruling, the full three-person board must now rule on the issue.

The PLRB has yet to rule on Pitt’s exception, and board spokesperson Lindsay Bracale declined to say when the ruling could happen.

“Currently, the board is reviewing the exceptions filed by the University and Union,” Bracale said. “As each case is different, with a wide range of arguments and fact patterns to consider, there is no prescribed date when the board will issue its ruling.”

Board meetings take place on the third Tuesday of every month, with the next possible ruling date on Feb. 18. If a ruling happens then, a second graduate student union election would occur about 40 days later, in early April, according to Cech. But if the ruling happens at a later date, or the board rules against the union, that will likely push a vote to the fall.

Cech said he thinks it’s “highly unlikely” that the PLRB will reverse the proposed ruling, and he remains optimistic that the board will call for a new election yet again.

“The evidence [of unfair labor practices] is overwhelming,” Cech said. “If anything, we expect the board to come down harder on Pitt this time.”

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said the University maintains that it did nothing wrong in the April election.

“As we await the PLRB’s ruling, we remain confident that our actions during the election were legal and appropriate,” Zwick said. “We also believe that the results of that election, in which graduate students voted not to join the United Steelworkers, should be upheld.”

Pitt’s graduate union organizers haven’t ceased their campaigning efforts while waiting for a new election. Graduate students held a demonstration in December on the Forbes Avenue sky bridge to rally support, and handed out fliers across campus last semester to tell students about how a union could improve their lives.

“If we continue organizing, and we get another [PLRB] ruling in our favor, that shows students that Pitt is not supporting them,” Cech said. “That’s exactly why we need a union.”

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