Guest Opinion: The Pitt Grad Union Vote and Our City’s Great Labor History

By March 31, 2019 No Comments


By Ben Case
University of Pittsburgh Department of Sociology


The week of April 15th, graduate student workers at the University of Pittsburgh will vote whether or not to form a union. For grad students, it is an opportunity to improve our working conditions and to move toward a more democratic university. For Pittsburgh, our struggle looks toward a more equitable and prosperous future in this city.

Pittsburgh was literally built by unions, and in many ways unions in the U.S. were built by Pittsburgh. Both the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor were founded here. The international headquarters of the United Steelworkers is here and its predecessor, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was founded here. The famous Battle of Homestead took place at what is now the Waterfront. Down the street, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led labor marches. The first chair of the National Labor Relations Board was J. Warren Madden, a University of Pittsburgh professor.

The union struggles in Pittsburgh not only built this city but were central to this country’s labor movement, which we have to thank for innovations like the weekend. As Pittsburgh leans into its transformation from the center of US industry to an “eds and meds” hub of technological and medical innovation, our struggle to unionize academic workers is deeply connected to both the struggles of industrial workers who built the union movement here a century ago and the struggles that will define this country’s economy in the decades to come.

In a changing economy, where many millennials face the prospect of numerous career changes and often must cobble together part-time and gig work, our struggle to unionize the university reflects the struggles of the 21st century American worker. In our academic jobs as graduate students, we frequently change job designations and titles, we are reliant on nebulous processes and good relationships with professors in hope of securing future funding, and the jobs we do for pay are often partially or even entirely unrelated to our academic research. The university tells us a story about being part of a university community while disaffirming our rights as workers.

Sadly, the university administration has chosen to adopt the historic role of the robber barons in standing in the way of union progress. They have organized “balanced” panels with the administration on one side and fake representatives from the grad union on the other. They have put up an anti-union website designed to appear neutral (this is theirs; this is ours) in order to spread disinformation —a union-busting tactic so common it has an acronym: FUD, or fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Last month, they organized an informational session on the union process where grads were not allowed to speak; questions were accepted from the audience only in writing and then visibly sorted into “answer” and “do not answer” piles in order to eliminate the topics they did not want to address.

One of the questions at the informational session that was asked by many grad students and which the administration declined to answer is how much money the university has spent on Ballard Spahr, the union-busting law firm that they retained last year to argue in front of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that graduate students who teach classes, grade papers and exams, work in labs, and edit journals are not in fact doing work for the university. The Pitt administration hired Ballard Spahr after Penn State did the same to bust union efforts at State College early last year. At Penn State, Ballard Spahr advisors helped to craft a disgraceful misinformation campaign targeting international students, essentially threatening them with deportation if they voted to unionize. We still don’t know how much of undergraduates’ tuition money the administration spent on Ballard Spahr’s “union avoidance” services. The worst part is, there is no reason for the administration’s hostility toward us, except than that a union might marginally curtail their unilateral power.

When the Labor Relations Board ruled that we are employees with a right to vote for a union, Vice Provost Nathan Urban, who has been heading up anti-union communications, sent a mass email informing all Pitt graduate students that the university is “disappointed” that we will get to vote for a union. Not disappointed that we will form a union, but disappointed that we even get a chance to vote for one. In a union town like Pittsburgh, where our football team is literally named the Steelers, he should be ashamed.

By organizing at Pitt, we are not only exercising our rights as workers who help run this great educational institution, we are joining a movement of academic unions that are improving conditions at some of the top-ranking universities in the country. Graduate students have formed unions at Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, University of Iowa, New York University, the entire State University of New York and University of California systems, and dozens more. Like our colleagues at all these institutions, graduate students at Pitt are organizing because we love the work we do, our students, our research, and we want to be able to do that work as well as possible, with all the rights and protections of unionized workers. The precarity that comes with our jobs doesn’t only hurt us, it hurts the university. And like all the universities where grads have successfully organized, a union at Pitt can make the entire university better.

By standing in the way of academic unions, Pitt’s administration higher-ups are demonstrating a lack of positive vision for the future. Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, and the rest might have gotten a little richer, but without the unions this city would not be what it is. As Pittsburgh moves forward, unionizing the new centers of the economy is a big part of what will make it livable for all, not just a few. Unions built Pittsburgh, and unions are going to carry our city into the future.

For more information, see our website at pittgradunion.org.


Ben Case is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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