Pitt’s spending on ‘union avoidance’ law firm nears $3M


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Pitt administration poured large sums of money into a “union avoidance” law firm, according to financial disclosures.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

As Pitt neared an historic election that saw faculty vote overwhelmingly in favor of unionization, the University administration continued to pay large sums of money to a “union avoidance” law firm, with the total payout now approaching $3 million, according to University financial disclosure reports.

Pitt’s Office of University Counsel paid Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr $721,152 in fees between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 to provide legal support during unionization attempts by faculty, graduate students and now staff.

Ballard Spahr’s labor attorneys offer a plethora of services to help employers challenge union drives, including “union avoidance training and counseling,” “prevention and control of strikes and picketing” and “decertification and withdrawal of union recognition.”

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. The reports show that Pitt paid Ballard Spahr $721,152 in fiscal year 2021, $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 $2,912,855.

Temple University and Penn State have also paid Ballard Spahr hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide legal counsel during unionization efforts in the past decade.

The most recent reporting period preceded one of the largest labor victories in Pitt’s history, as University faculty voted resoundingly to form a union after three failed attempts in the past half century. The final tally from October showed that 1,511 faculty voted in favor of joining the United Steelworkers — a Pittsburgh-based union with more than 800,000 members internationally — while 612 voted against.

The landslide election followed years of campaigning and legal battles between union organizers and Pitt administrators. Organizers fought to reverse an initial Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling that said they had not gathered enough faculty signatures to trigger a union election. A Pitt News investigation later revealed that the University had included hundreds of retirees and administrators on the union eligibility list, putting the showing of interest threshold out of reach for organizers. PLRB hearing examiner Stephen Helmerich ruled that the list was “factually and legally inaccurate,” and the board subsequently ordered a faculty union election — two years after the first election request had been denied.

After the PLRB tallied up the votes, labor reporters, Pitt alumni and faculty took to social media to celebrate — and slam Pitt for shelling out millions of dollars to a “union avoidance” law firm.

“Excellent use of money,” Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for HuffPost, said sarcastically. “I’d be thrilled with those expenditures if I were a Pitt grad.”

A University spokesperson said in 2020 that some of the payments to Ballard Spahr could come from student tuition. Pitt has contracted with the firm since 2009, but the payments stayed within a few thousand dollars until 2016, when graduate student and faculty unionization efforts officially kicked off.

As the faculty campaign moves into contract negotiations, psychology lecturer Melinda Ciccocioppo encouraged University officials to “focus on the greater good.”

“Part of our motivation in organizing is that we want the Pitt administration to prioritize our campus community and invest in students, faculty and staff rather than squandering resources on things like unnecessary legal fees,” Ciccocioppo said.

Asked whether Pitt will continue to spend big money with a “union avoidance” firm now that faculty have succeeded in forming a union, Pitt spokesperson David Seldin did not directly answer the question.

“While the formation of a faculty union may change how our community works together, it will not change our longstanding commitment to partnering with faculty members to advance their pursuits of excellence in teaching, scholarship and research,” Seldin said.

Prior to its victory, the faculty campaign was one of three efforts to unionize workers at Pitt — all affiliated with United Steelworkers. A campaign to unionize more than 2,000 graduate student workers continues, despite the PLRB upholding an April 2019 vote against unionization. The effort remains tangled up in the appeal process.

Pitt staff members also launched a unionization drive in September — with a larger potential bargaining unit than either faculty or graduate students — but the campaign is still “very early in the process,” Steelworkers spokesperson Jess Kamm Broomell said.