Op-Ed | What’s missing from Pitt’s pandemic planning? A Faculty Union

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By Pitt Faculty Organizing Committee

We write as University of Pittsburgh faculty who are committed to our students, our colleagues, our research, our patrons and our patients. The University works because we do, and along with our colleagues in buildings and facilities, graduate research and workers throughout the University, we have worked harder than ever to keep Pitt running during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic raises real challenges, with few good solutions to them. Many of the individuals involved in the administration’s planning process have done their best under demanding circumstances. But, however well-intentioned, a top-down process that ignores the knowledge and expertise of faculty and staff is one that also ignores our needs. It’s not surprising that a process that shuts out the people who make the University work has led to serious missteps in pandemic planning for the fall. Pitt needs a faculty union that will build strong, legally enforceable representation for faculty into the decision-making process.

The points below make clear the state of affairs at the University in the absence of a certified faculty union and suggest what could be accomplished with one in place.

Transparency:

  • Rather than depending on the student newspaper — which scooped the Chancellor and Provost by a full day — to give us advance notice of the administration’s plans, we’ll have a legal right to information about every decision that affects our work and be able to communicate it to all faculty in regular updates.

Agency:

  • Rather than waiting for committees dominated by senior administrators to dictate our classes and teaching conditions, we’ll be able to negotiate the policies that govern teaching during this pandemic. Instead of having a flat salary pool handed down to us, we can negotiate reasonable salary policies that acknowledge the crisis while protecting the most vulnerable among us, including the part-time and visiting faculty whom the University treats as an afterthought. 
  • Rather than having to design and teach separate in-person and online versions of our classes for no additional compensation, we can negotiate extra pay for extra work. Instead of accepting intellectual property policies that require us to hand over “irrevocable, perpetual, royalty-free license” to use our teaching materials, we can revise those policies to protect our intellectual property and our jobs. 
  • Rather than passively accepting the trustees’ decision to keep the distribution from the $2.6-billion unrestricted quasi-endowment flat, we can use the added clout that derives from legally mandated bargaining to pressure the administration to draw on its resources to lessen the financial impacts of this once-in-a-lifetime crisis on faculty, staff and students.

Safety:

  • Rather than leaving it to the administration to decide what conditions mandate changes to Pitt’s operating postures (to date, the administration has refused even to discuss this with most faculty), we can demand quantitative metrics and concrete plans for testing and contact tracing. We will be able to negotiate a process for reporting and addressing safety violations, such as employees, patients or students not wearing masks. Furthermore, faculty involved in patient care will be guaranteed adherence to best infection-control clinical practices and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks.
  • Rather than having to come up with our own individual plans for caring for our dependents while working from home, we’ll be able to bargain for additional child care, family leave and other programs to support employees juggling impossible demands during this pandemic.

These are concrete examples of policies that faculty and other academic worker unions have been able to achieve. At universities where faculty members already have a union certified by the labor board after an election, the administration cannot make changes to their terms and conditions of employment without agreement by the faculty. Unionized faculty across the country have used that legal protection to keep their universities focused on carrying out their core mission without sacrificing the people who actually carry it out.

The United Faculty of Florida, for example, has already negotiated a supplemental agreement that protects faculty career advancement from being undermined by the effects of the pandemic. And both the California Faculty Association and United University Professions at the state universities of New York have negotiated agreements through which full-time faculty can help preserve the jobs of their part-time colleagues. The United Academics of Oregon State won provisions that prevent salary freezes or reductions due to the pandemic without specific, verifiable financial triggers and regular consultation with the union, while protecting the lowest-paid faculty and tying any salary changes to administrative salaries. Here in Pittsburgh, the United Steelworkers-affiliated part-time faculty members at Point Park University have been able to push back against the administration’s attempt to force faculty to waive their right to seek legal redress in the event the administration’s policies result in them contracting COVID-19, according Damon Di Cicco, the local union president at Point Park.

Faculty unions don’t just benefit faculty. Before major pushback from faculty and students, the Office of the Provost suggested that faculty members who cannot teach on campus use staff or graduate student labor to provide in-person instruction. Pitt will only commit to physical distancing and “proper airflow” in learning and working environments “where practical” and “where feasible.” When faculty enter into a collective bargaining agreement, we can make it harder for the administration to ask us to choose between our own safety and the safety of our fellow workers. We can participate in defining “practical” and “feasible” in humane terms.

When faculty working conditions improve, so do student learning conditions. The faculty union at Rutgers University advocates for undergraduate agency in how Rutgers distributes CARES Act funds. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, unionized faculty, staff, graduate employees and building and food service workers form a Campus Labor Coalition that acts collectively for everyone’s health. Faculty, graduate, nursing and service employee unions on the Chicago and Urbana campuses work together to win better contracts. Unions on both campuses play important roles in local anti-racist and immigrant justice coalitions. With a union, Pitt faculty can have a meaningful say in what kind of neighbor the University of Pittsburgh will be. Our union will help all workers on our campuses pressure the administration for a safer and more effective work environment.

With a union, we can make sure that the people with the most hands-on experience and the most at stake have a real say in the decisions that affect our jobs and our health. A certified union will give us a seat at the table, improving decision-making and outcomes and helping Pitt live up to its stated ideals.

In solidarity with our fellow workers across the University,

Pitt Faculty Organizing Committee 

 

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