‘Cockroaches of the labor movement:’ High turnover proves blessing and curse for graduate union organizers


TPN File Photo

A Pitt graduate student union poster.

By Jack Troy, Senior Staff Writer

Armed with a folding table, a few dozen pins and QR codes for a survey on graduate student grievances, Pat Healy and Connor Chapman connected with pro-union passersby on a Thursday afternoon in November.

A rotating cast of Pitt graduate student union organizers take on the duty each week at high traffic spots on campus. This time, Healy and Chapman stationed themselves outside of the Public Health building, and managed to distribute a few pins and flyers within the first quarter of their two-hour shift. 

By their own admission, organizers have been quiet as of late, relying on these weekly tabling sessions and one-on-one outreach to maintain visibility. 

It’s a far cry from the lead-up to the April 2019 election — a narrow and controversial defeat for the union — when supporters projected their logo onto the Cathedral of Learning and rallied with Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

“We’ve returned to where we were before we went public,” Healy, a member of the union’s organizing committee since May 2019, said. 

While the University may offer decades of employment for faculty, who successfully unionized last year, most graduate students stick around for five years or less. High turnover has been a blessing and a curse for union hopefuls after the last election, in which eligible graduate students rejected unionization by a margin of 39 votes. 

Healy joked that graduate students are “the cockroaches of the labor movement.”

“We are constantly sort of reproducing ourselves. Even if you crush a grad union once, it’s just going to come back because there are new people here now,” Healy said. 

A Pitt spokesperson said the University is “committed to supporting graduate and professional students holistically,” and has raised stipends, hired additional support staff and extended the parental accommodation period for these students in recent years. 

Pitt declined to name the employee speaking on behalf of the University.

At the same time, the ever-shifting bargaining unit led United Steelworkers to decide against further litigating the last election based on Pitt’s unfair labor practices, according to Steelworkers Organizing Director Maria Somma. 

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board found that the University had engaged in “coercive acts” that amounted to voter intimidation, including an email to 34 chemical engineering students by department chair Steven Little implying that the University was tracking who voted.

Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmerich initially ordered a new election, but following a University appeal the board concluded that the impact of this anti-union activity was insufficient to change the outcome of the election. 

David Seldin, Pitt spokesperson at the time, told The Pitt News in March 2021 that the University’s actions throughout the election were “appropriate.” 

The board issued a final ruling in Pitt’s favor on Sept. 21, 2021. The Steelworkers expressed intent to appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court shortly thereafter, but withdrew its petition for litigation on March 18. Further appeals would have likely been a multi-year endeavor, according to Somma. 

“By the time the courts would have made the decision, there could have been a 100% turnover rate of the workers,” Somma said. “How can we in good conscience talk to the workers that we’re dealing with now and say ‘three years ago, or four years ago, your predecessors wanted a union?’”

Organizers could trigger a new election by collecting authorization cards from 30% of the current cohort. Somma said there’s no imminent push for an election, and right now the Steelworkers are back to “just rolling up our sleeves, basic one-on-one organizing.”

Healy said in a future petition for an election, there would likely be less time between filing and voting given that the PLRB has already determined which graduate workers comprise the bargaining unit. This would close one avenue of delay for Pitt, which Healy said is “always the chief strategy of union busting.” 

There are other reasons to expect less resistance from Pitt, according to Healy, such as the presence of the faculty union and lessons learned from the previous union drive. 

“I think we know who we’re up against this time around,” Healy said. 

Organizers remain focused for now on building organizing committee membership by striking up conversations with graduate workers through office and classroom visits as well as tabling.

“We’re doing our best to talk to every grad in the unit,” Healy said. “Every organizing project is an education one. And we’re educators.”