Pay, advancement top priorities for organizers as staff unionization ramps up


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The Cathedral of Learning and Litchfield Towers.

By Jack Troy, Senior Staff Writer

Organizers say they’re optimistic as efforts to trigger a staff union election gain momentum, even without a definite timetable for when that election might be. 

Staff members have cited pay, access to benefits and parking as potential bargaining issues, but for Dylan Nagy, a senior data analyst for the School of Public Health, a lack of advancement opportunities is most pressing. 

“You can’t really push your career forward here,” Nagy said. 

The United Steelworkers, which represents Pitt faculty and supports graduate students in their own union drive, went public with the staff campaign in September 2021. Organizers must collect signed union cards from 30% of the proposed bargaining unit to get an election date, though according to Nagy, they’re hoping to overshoot that threshold to give staff time to weigh the merits of unionization.

Nagy isn’t formally part of the union’s organizing committee, but said he’s a “staff member who talks with other staff members” through tabling, phone banking and everyday conversation. Staff members can also connect with organizers by filling out an interest form on the staff union website. 

Roughly 8,000 full-time staff members work at Pitt, including advisers, researchers and administrative assistants, but not all would fall under the bargaining unit. Service Employees International Union 32BJ represents several hundred maintenance and cleaning staff members, while Pitt police have their own labor association. 

As with any union, the bargaining unit would also exclude supervisors, still leaving thousands of staff members across Pitt’s five campuses eligible for representation by the USW. 

Carla Johnson, a lab manager and member of the organizing committee, also cited a lack of mobility through the job ladder as an issue. After 23 years working in multiple labs at Pitt, she feels that there’s “nowhere to advance.”

Pitt streamlined its staff promotions process last year, according to a University spokesperson, and is “continuously working on new opportunities to promote employees.” 

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

The spokesperson also said an update on the Compensation Modernization project, which began in 2017 but has yet to be implemented, is coming “soon.” Vice Chancellor of Human Resources James Gallaher told the University Times in November that this overhaul of the pay structure still has three to five years until completion. The University is currently working to classify positions into occupational groups, including “200 or 300 jobs that still need to be mapped that are pretty unique and special,” Gallaher said.

For some staff members such as Johnson, the desire to unionize comes not only from a place of discontent with pay or working conditions, but to preserve existing perks, such as tuition benefits for workers and their families. 

“All in all, Pitt’s a pretty good place to work,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be here for some 20 plus years if it wasn’t a good place to work.”

Other benefits offered to University employees include medical plans, a matched retirement savings program and opportunities for hybrid or remote work. 

The University is aware of organizing efforts, and released a statement from Gallaher earlier this semester expressing intent to adhere to labor law while also mentioning the purported benefits of the existing shared governance system.

“We strongly believe that the University of Pittsburgh provides an excellent workplace and is guided by a foundational model of shared governance, which is predicated on input from all constituents, including our staff,” Gallaher said. “We have a long history of working effectively with unions and respect the right of our employees to decide whether or not to choose a union.”

A frequently asked questions page accompanied the statement, explaining the fundamentals of a union and the impact one might have on staff members. 

Despite Pitt providing information about the drive, Nagy doesn’t expect complete cooperation from the University during the unionization process. 

“From the way that things seem to be going with faculty union with negotiations, it does seem like Pitt will push back with things and they will take their time moving forward with things.”

Negotiations between administration and the faculty union have lasted nearly a year without resolution on critical topics such as workload and compensation, though in a Feb. 9 bargaining update the union said recent talks have been “productive.”

“I think, as staff, we wouldn’t be trying to unionize if we thought Pitt would just do what we ask for,” Nagy said.