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 a union?

A union is an organization that has the exclusive right to represent workers and bargain collectively on their behalf over issues such as wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions. When a union is certified, individuals in the bargaining unit cede the right to deal directly with their employer to the union. 

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 student assistants with respect to all issues involving wages, benefits, and working conditions. If the Steelworkers are able to gather signed authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the group that it seeks to represent, it can ask 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 would be represented by a union?

This is not up to the University. The union decides what group of students they seek to represent by filing a petition with the PLRB as described below. The PLRB decides whether to hold an election. The University cannot predict the outcome of that process. However, it is unlikely that graduate students who receive financial support from the University solely in the form of tuition reduction could participate.

What is a union authorization card, i.e., the form graduate students on campus are being asked to sign?

A union authorization card is a legal document authorizing a union to act as an individual’s exclusive representative. As you would with any legal document, you should be sure you fully understand its meaning, and the obligations it places on you and others, if you are considering signing. Signed cards could be used by the United Steelworkers to file a petition with the PLRB. Unions also gauge support based on response to these cards.  

What is the process for deciding on unionization?

Essentially the process consists of three steps. First, the union collects cards to submit to the PLRB. If cards are submitted, the union also needs to specify the group (called a bargaining unit) that would be included in the union. The PLRB would then make a set of rulings on whether there is a group who is eligible to unionize, and whether the cards that were turned in are sufficient to authorize an election for that group. If the PLRB determines that an election is appropriate, it will hold a vote. If the vote occurs and more than 50 percent of those who vote (note 50 percent of eligible voters) vote in favor of unionization, then the union becomes the exclusive representative of all the members of the bargaining unit. At that point, if there are no legal appeals, negotiations can begin between the union and the University. The issues that would be subject to negotiation would generally be “wages, hours and working conditions,” 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 campaign go on?

That is unknown. It is up to the United Steelworkers.  

Do I have to sign a union authorization card to be eligible to vote in an election?

No. If an election were held, people who are in the group found eligible by the PLRB would have the right to vote. An election would not take place until after a petition has been filed with the PLRB and a ruling has been made by the PLRB about what group should be considered the bargaining unit. 

Which students would be eligible to vote?

The PLRB decides whether graduate students can be part of a bargaining unit and who is eligible to vote. If a petition for representation were filed, the PLRB would review the bargaining unit proposed by the union petition and determine if it is appropriate under the facts and the law. When the parties disagree about the appropriateness of the proposed unit, the PLRB conducts hearings before making its decision.  

Would international students be eligible to vote?

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

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

If a union is approved by a vote of eligible Pitt graduate students, the United Steelworkers would have the exclusive right to represent graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. The union would negotiate items including wages, hours, and working conditions. Graduate students would no longer negotiate these items with their departments or schools. 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. For example, according to the Web site for the union at New York University, dues are 2 percent of compensation during the semesters in which a graduate student is acting in a covered role. There also is an initiation fee of approximately $50.

Can I see the proposed contract, including the list of terms and conditions of employment, before I decide whether to sign a union authorization card?

No, because there is no such contract to show. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions of employment 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. 

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. 

Could a union force the University to lower graduate tuition? 

If there is a union certified for graduate students, the union would only be able to bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions 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 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.

If I have already signed a card, can I change my mind?

You may be able to request the return of your signed authorization card from the United Steelworkers, although the union is not required to return the card. Once a petition for representation has been filed, it is almost certainly too late to rescind your endorsement of the union.