At the University of Pittsburgh, roughly thirty-five hundred educators are currently voting on whether to unionize. Should they do so, they would constitute one of the largest new unions in the United States so far this year. The election, years in the making, is being conducted through the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB). Mail-in ballots went out on August 27, and are due back by October 12.
The union is organized with the Pittsburgh-headquartered United Steelworkers (USW), with whom Pitt’s graduate workers are also organizing — earlier this year, the PLRB dismissed a petition by the USW to overturn those workers’ 2019 election that resulted in a narrow rejection of the union. The USW counts a number of other Pittsburgh-area academics among its members, representing adjuncts at Point Park and Robert Morris Universities.
The thousands-strong faculty union at the public institution is all-ranks: it includes lecturers, adjuncts, tenure-track professors, and tenured professors. Some members primarily teach; others spend the bulk of their time conducting research. While the former are particularly concerned with increases in class sizes and workloads that have not been accompanied by increases in pay, and the former may be focused on the allocation of lab space and research grants, they share an employer, and the need for a say on the job.
“Cutting across the very different types of work we do is the desire to have a voice in our working conditions,” says Tyler Bickford, an associate professor in the university’s English department.
“We’re some seven degrees removed from the people who are actually making the decisions,” explains Bickford. “If a problem arises, we have to go to the director of our program, and beg them for help. And then they have to go and beg a department chair for help. And then they have to go and beg the associate dean for help, who has to go beg the dean for help, who has to go beg the vice provost for help, who has to go beg the provost for help.”
Beyond this desire for a clearer path for solving problems as they arise, there are other shared concerns. Faculty say pay and job security are priorities. The majority of the school’s educators are not tenure-eligible, and the Association of American Universities finds that Pitt lecturers in particular rank near the very bottom of the pay scale among member institutions.
As for job security, “there are faculty who have been at Pitt for twenty years and are on one-year contracts,” says Marian Jarlenski, an associate professor of public health. “Those of us in health sciences who have multi-year grants don’t know if our collaborators’ contracts will be renewed. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Tyler McAndrew, an adjunct in the English department, has taught at Pitt for seven years, but is currently hired on a semester-by-semester basis, and limited to teaching two courses per semester. When he started in 2014, his pay was a mere $3,268 per three-credit course.
The current organizing drive began in 2015; it follows previously failed efforts, the most recent of which was suspended in 1996. Although the union filed for a PLRB election in January 2019, the administration, assisted by Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based union-busting law firm, successfully stalled for several years.
“Pitt provided the PLRB with a list of employees that was much, much larger than we had any reason to believe that might be based on public record filings and everything else,” says Bickford. Had that list been accepted by the board, the union wouldn’t have demonstrated a sufficient showing of interest — signed union-authorization cards from 30 percent of workers within the bargaining unit — to qualify for an election. However, the union appealed, and upon receiving the administration’s list, found a host of irregularities.
“Their list included a large number of people who were clearly out of the unit: administrators, managers, some dead people, some students, people who had retired years ago,” says Bickford.
Next, the administration petitioned to decertify the School of Medicine’s bargaining unit, the Faculty Association of the School of Medicine (FASM), which has long been inactive. While the PLRB ultimately approved the decertification, it did not agree with the university’s next argument, which was that the newly unrepresented faculty at the School of Medicine should be included in the current union election, an attempt to inflate the unit yet again, forcing organizers to win over workers to whom they have not previously spoken. Instead, on July 16, the PLRB ordered the vote to proceed with the union’s proposed bargaining unit.
While many universities tout a system of self-governance by faculty, Pitt faculty emphasize that this system lacks teeth, only allowing faculty to issue recommendations, which the administration can then choose to either follow or ignore. By way of example, McAndrew recalls a non-tenure-stream faculty listening session that was held by the faculty senate around the time faculty began signing union authorization cards.
“The apparent goal of this session was to hear how working conditions can be improved for non-tenure-stream faculty. It was two hours of people showing up and saying, ‘pay us more, give us job security,’” says McAndrew. Despite such testimony, the result was symbolic, a linguistic, rather than material, change: “The school has changed its terminology, shifting away from saying ‘non-tenure-stream faculty’ to using ‘appointment-stream faculty.’ It’s a superficial thing that doesn’t create any material change, but is meant to make people feel a little bit better.”
The union drive at Pitt is one of many organizing efforts among workers in higher education, a response in part to the sector’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty — currently, around 70 percent of faculty are contingent. As a study by Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions found, faculty in the United States formed 118 new bargaining units, containing more than thirty-six thousand people, between 2013 and 2019. Fifty of these units are at public institutions like the University of Pittsburgh. This is in addition to legislative efforts among such workers, most notably, the current push by a broad coalition of unions to pass the College for All Act.
“It’s clear that faculty at institutions across North America are seeing the writing on the wall and figuring out ways to fight back and take back power for themselves that has been lost over the last generation,” says Bickford.
“This is a crucial moment in academia,” adds McAndrew. “Things have to change one way or the other. Either more schools will organize, or things will continue getting worse.”