Union Basics

The issue of graduate student unionization is complex and carries long-range implications for you, the University, and future graduate students. We invite you to think about the issues, and do your research.

What is this graduate student unionization effort about?

The United Steelworkers union, in collaboration with a student organizing committee, is seeking to exclusively represent Pitt graduate students with academic appointments with respect to all issues involving stipends, benefits, and terms of their academic appointments. The Steelworkers have asked the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) to order a secret ballot election to decide if the eligible students are to be represented by the United Steelworkers.

Which students could be represented by a union?

This is not up to the University. The union has requested that they serve as the sole representatives of all TAs/TFs/GSAs and GSRs. The PLRB decides whether to hold an election and, if an election is held, who is eligible to vote.  

What is the process for deciding on unionization?

The process consists of a number of steps. The union has already petitioned the PLRB to be the sole representative of a group of students. In particular, the union specified the group (called a proposed bargaining unit) that it wants to represent. Next, a Hearing Examiner appointed by the PLRB will rule on whether there is a group of students who are eligible to vote in an election on whether they wish to be represented by the Steelworkers. This ruling will be based on evidence introduced in hearings to be held starting October 1st. If the Hearing Examiner determines that an election is appropriate, the PLRB can hold a vote. If the vote occurs and more than 50 percent of those who vote (not 50 percent of eligible voters) vote in favor of unionization, then the union is certified as the exclusive representative of all the members of the bargaining unit. Either the union or the University could file legal appeals of the Hearing Examiner’s ruling. Only after any appeals are decided, negotiations could begin between the union and the University, if the union was ultimately certified as the exclusive representative of some group of graduate students. The issues that could be subject to negotiation would generally be stipends, benefits, and terms of covered academic appointments, although what, exactly, would be covered under these categories would be subject to legal arguments and decisions of the PLRB and the courts. Any agreement on a contract reached by the union and the University would be subject to a vote of the union members.  

What rights do graduate students have during a campaign for unionization?

Graduate students have the right to support or oppose unionization and the right to not express any position. The University encourages an open and informed dialogue for people to air their views. 

Are graduate students required to respond to union organizers who ask to talk to them, either at home, on campus, or in University buildings?

No one is required to engage with someone if they do not want to do so, but graduate students are free to have these conversations.

How long will this process take?

That is unknown. Following the hearings which start in October, it will be up to the Hearing Examiner to make a ruling on whether an election should be held.  If the Hearing Examiner finds that an election is appropriate for some students, the PLRB will set an election date, which is typically at least several weeks after the Hearing Examiner’s decision.  Even after an election, the process can take some time if legal appeals are filed. 

Who would be eligible to vote in an election?

If an election were held, all students who are in the group found eligible by the Hearing Examiner (as of a date determined by the hearing examiner) would have the right to vote. 

Would international students be eligible to vote?

All students in the unit found appropriate by the Hearing Examiner would be eligible to vote if an election is ordered. 

If a vote is held, and a union is certified, what happens next? How long would it take to see any changes?

If certified after an election and all appeals are resolved, the United Steelworkers would have the exclusive right to represent a group of graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. The parties could negotiate over stipends, benefits, and certain terms of academic appointments. Graduate students would no longer be able to work with their departments or schools on these issues. There is no specific timetable for implementing changes if a union is approved, and no guarantee what changes, if any, will occur; the pace of change and the extent of changes would depend on negotiations between the Steelworkers and the University.

How much would dues be if a union were certified?

We don’t know what the dues would be as union dues are set by the union. Union dues could be a flat fee or a certain percent of the stipend that a graduate student receives. According to the website for the graduate student organizing group, Steelworkers Union dues are 1.45% of gross pay, with an additional $0.02 per hour.  The University does not know how the Steelworkers would seek to apply that to graduate students.

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I decide how to vote if there is an election?

No, because there is no such contract to show. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions occur only after an election, if the vote is in favor of union representation. 

Are graduate students at other universities represented by the United Steelworkers?

Currently the United Steelworkers union does not represent graduate students at any college or university in the country. They do currently represent  faculty members at Point Park and Robert Morris universities, but they do not represent faculty members at any major research institution in the United States. Graduate unions of TAs operate at a few dozen universities across the country. Graduate student unions that include GSRs are much less common. 

Can a union guarantee graduate students higher stipends, job security, and other types of benefits?

No. If the United Steelworkers or another union won the right to bargain on behalf of graduate students, the University and the union would be required to bargain in good faith over terms and conditions for graduate students. However, neither side is required to agree to any specific term. There is no guarantee of any increase in stipends or benefits or any change in other terms. The outcome of negotiations could result in stipends and other benefits increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. It is also possible that no agreement would be reached, in which case union members would likely vote on whether to continue working in the absence of a contract. In the last 5 years, Pitt has increased stipends at rates faster than inflation and faster than specified in most union contracts that we have examined.

Could a union force the University to lower graduate tuition? 

If a union were certified for graduate students, the union would only be able to bargain over stipends, benefits, and terms of assistantships for those graduate students whom the PLRB determines are eligible to be included. A union could not bargain over the University’s tuition rates or other policies.

How do I know that a union would address the issues of concern to me?

You don't. The union and its elected leadership would decide on what issues to make priorities in any negotiations. Members of the bargaining unit can only choose whether to accept a contract or reject it.