Labor board to hold hearing on proposed grad union ruling

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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 and Jon Moss

Graduate students now have to wait until at least the end of May to see whether they will be granted a second chance to form a union.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board announced in a Tuesday order that it has granted Pitt’s request for oral arguments about whether a PLRB official properly applied the law in a proposed September ruling and other technical issues. According to the order, the arguments will center around two issues — whether the burden lies with Pitt or union organizers to prove that unfair practices, if committed, did not materially affect the outcome of the election, and whether the board should allow election watchers to keep a tally of voters. The board scheduled the oral arguments for May 28 at 1 p.m. at its downtown Pittsburgh offices.

Graduate students originally voted against a union last April 712 to 675 — a margin of 37 votes. Union organizers appealed the election’s results shortly afterwards, alleging illicit action by both Pitt and the board, leading to a round of May hearings to address conduct during the election.

Based on oral and written arguments, PLRB official Stephen Helmerich issued a proposed ruling in September finding the board innocent, but Pitt guilty of three unfair labor practices which potentially influenced the election’s results. Helmerich said Pitt’s anti-union actions included misinformation and intimidation, and “potentially affected a large enough pool of eligible voters for the effect on the election to be manifest due to the extreme narrowness of the result,” requiring a new election to be held. The University filed an exception to the proposed ruling in October, forcing the full three-person board to rule on the matter.

Pitt maintains that it committed no illegal conduct during the April election. University spokesperson Kevin Zwick said Pitt requested the round of oral arguments when its attorneys filed the exception in October.

“The University believes that the complex questions presented by this case merit full consideration, including through both written briefs and oral arguments, which is why we requested them when we filed our exceptions in October,” Zwick said.

Although union organizers did not publicly raise concerns about Pitt’s request for hearings when it was sent to the board, organizers said Tuesday that the request is a stalling tactic.

Patrick Beckhorn, a teaching fellow in the anthropology department, said he was frustrated that the litigation battle over unionization is now taking another turn.

“It has now been over two years since we filed our petition,” Beckhorn said. “Now we are facing yet another delay as a result of the administration’s behavior.”

Graduate student union organizers began unionization efforts in 2016 and filed for a union election in December 2017. Organizers say a union would help graduate students win higher wages, better benefits and increased protections against discrimination.

“We look forward to the day — soon, we hope — when we will be able to hold a fair election free from the University’s interference,” Beckhorn said.

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