Pitt spends additional $881K on ‘union avoidance’ law firm, pushing total over $2M


TPN file photo

Pitt’s Office of University Counsel paid Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr $881,069 in fees between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 to contest simultaneous but separate unionization attempts by faculty and graduate students.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

As the graduate student and faculty union campaigns at Pitt reach their fifth birthdays, the University administration continues to spend big money on a prominent “union avoidance” law firm, with payouts recently surpassing $2 million, according to University financial disclosure reports.

Pitt’s Office of University Counsel paid Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr $881,069 in fees between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 to provide legal support during simultaneous but separate unionization attempts by faculty and graduate students.

Ballard Spahr has been the firm of choice for universities looking to challenge unionization efforts. Its labor attorneys offer a plethora of services, including “union avoidance training and counseling,” “prevention and control of strikes and picketing” and “decertification and withdrawal of union recognition.” The firm has also contracted with Temple University and Penn State in the past two decades.

Under Pennsylvania’s Public School Code of 1949, Pitt and other state-related universities must submit financial disclosure reports — which list goods and service contracts that exceed $1,000 — to the state every year. They show that Pitt paid Ballard Spahr $881,069 in fiscal year 2020, $1,071,573 in fiscal year 2019 and $239,061 in the three fiscal years before that, for a total of $2,191,703.

University spokesperson Kevin Zwick said Pitt “works with outside counsel for representation on a wide variety of legal matters.”

During the time the payments were made, faculty made several significant advancements in their fight to form a union. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board initially ruled in April 2019 that faculty had not submitted enough signed authorization cards to trigger a union election, but union organizers swiftly appealed the decision, accusing Pitt of deliberately inflating the list of union-eligible faculty to stomp out unionization efforts. After months of hearings — and a Pitt News investigation finding that the University had included hundreds of administrators and retired faculty on the eligibility list — a Labor Board hearing examiner ruled in June that Pitt’s list was “factually and legally inaccurate.”

Representatives from United Steelworkers, the union assisting faculty and graduate students in their attempts to unionize, said a faculty union election could take place this summer — with mail-in ballots due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The graduate student union campaign, on the other hand, has been moving slowly for the past year. Graduate students voted against unionization by a margin of 37 votes in April 2019. But a Labor Board hearing examiner issued a proposed ruling in September 2019, saying Pitt committed “unfair labor practices” and ordered a new election. A number of smaller decisions have taken place since then, and the full three-person board still has yet to decide whether to order a new union election for graduate students. If the board does rule in favor of organizers, Pitt’s attorneys can still appeal the decision.

Paul Johnson, an assistant professor of communication and faculty union organizer, called the payments to Ballard Spahr “shameful.”

“Organizing will provide Pitt faculty with a voice in issues like working conditions and workplace safety that they need now more than ever,” Johnson said.

The University initially hired Ballard Spahr in 2009 for an unknown matter, but the payments stayed within a few thousand dollars until 2016, when unionization efforts kicked off.

Last year, Zwick said some of the payments to Ballard Spahr could come from student tuition.

“Legal expenditures are paid from our general operating budget, which is funded from a variety of sources, including tuition,” Zwick said.

Pitt also spent a total of $521,826 on two other prominent “union avoidance” law firms — Cozen O’Connor and Morgan Lewis & Bockius — last fiscal year. The University’s payments to those two firms have climbed in the past few years, with a pattern resembling Pitt’s steadily increasing payments to Ballard Spahr since 2016. Zwick said Pitt hired Cozen O’Connor and Morgan Lewis for matters unrelated to unionization, but did not specify further what they were hired for. 

“Ballard Spahr is the only firm that provides Pitt with legal representation for the two unionization efforts underway by the United Steelworkers,” Zwick said. “The firm also provides legal services for other non-union related matters … Spending with different vendors varies widely based on the University’s specific needs.”

Pitt’s Office of University Counsel spent $4,962,238 on goods and services that cost more than $1,000 last fiscal year.

Ballard Spahr in the political realm

If there’s one thing uniting the Steelworkers and Ballard Spahr, it’s their support for newly elected President Joe Biden.

The Steelworkers formally endorsed Biden last year when its president, Thomas Conway, called the then-Democratic nominee “a friend of workers and our union.” Ballard Spahr hosted a virtual event last Wednesday with both the Pennsylvania and Delaware state Democratic parties to celebrate Biden’s inauguration.

Last week was not the first time Ballard Spahr has associated itself with the newly elected president. Ballard Spahr partner Ken Jarin, who donated $2,800 to the Biden campaign, also co-hosted a fundraiser for Biden last April. And the firm’s attorneys coalesced around the president, giving $209,000 to his presidential election campaign, compared with just over $3,400 to former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

Ballard Spahr’s practices would seem to put it at odds with Democratic party ideals — especially Biden’s vow to be the “strongest labor president you’ve ever had” — but the firm has given nearly $900,000 to Democrats this election cycle.

The irony wasn’t lost on some progressives, who harshly criticized Ballard Spahr and the Democratic Party for accepting the firm’s sponsorship. Newly elected state Rep. Jessica Benham, a member of Pitt’s graduate student union campaign until 2019, was one of the progressives who spoke out in a statement to the Pittsburgh Current.

“It is unconscionable that the PA Democratic Party, which claims to reflect the interests of working people, would be associated with an elite law firm that so strongly opposes Organized Labor,” Benham said.

Benham said she “condemn[s]” Ballard Spahr’s partnership with the Democratic party “in the strongest of terms.”

“I am calling on my party leadership to, at the very least, acknowledge the harm of partnering 

with Ballard Spahr and to meet with leadership of organized labor to discuss a path forward,” Benham said.

Brendan Welch, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, and Jarin of Ballard Spahr did not reply to requests for comment.