Why Pitt’s Grad Students Need a Union

By Neil Cosgrove

When graduate students at the University of Wisconsin successfully formed a union in 1969 they made headlines because such an entity had never been seen before. But now, according to the web site set up by the University of Pittsburgh union organizers, 36 universities and university systems have such unions, while active organizing is taking place at 24 others.

Ali McIntosh and Shelby Brewster of the Pitt Graduate Student Organizing Committee spoke to the NewPeople recently and expressed confidence that an election to form a union will be successful, and hope it will take place before the end of the current semester. Whether an election occurs that soon depends on an awaited decision by a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing examiner, following hearings this past October and November. The hearings were meant to resolve the issue of whether or not Pitt graduate students are actually employees of the university, a legal argument commonly made by institutions of higher learning hoping to prevent unionization.

McIntosh and Brewster, both teaching assistants, have no doubt that they are employees—teaching, holding office hours, and performing other duties that absorb more than the 20 hours their appointments say they are to devote to their assigned tasks. “I wrote the syllabus and do all the grading of my students’ work in the course I’m currently teaching,” said Brewster. The problem, both say, is not that they are functioning as employees but that their lack of status as employees prevents them from earning a living wage, having guaranteed benefits, and working under clearly defined conditions of labor.

A union-negotiated contract would allow graduate students to obtain year-over-year increases in their “stipends.” At present, McIntosh pointed out, Pitt also insists that grad students may not take supplemental employment outside the university. “Being a graduate student is a full-time job,” Brewster asserted, “and we ought to be able to make a living in Pittsburgh.”

Without adequate income, and this is especially true of those with families and children, students are forced to add to their already growing debt. McIntosh offered that a fourth of her current paycheck from Pitt is already going to pay off a loan she could not defer. First-generation graduate students often come from lower-income families, McIntosh added, and struggle to make upfront payments for travel to academic conferences and seminars, while such activities are essential to building the credentials that will get them future positions. Reimbursements from their department are not guaranteed, nor helpful for students who can’t make the initial outlay.

It’s the guarantees that a legally binding collective bargaining agreement would provide that these students most yearn for. “We do have great health insurance at present,” said Brewster, “but we could lose that at any time.” “As it stands,” added McIntosh, “our grievance process is shadowy and tenuous at best,” while pointing to the current Title IX investigations involving Pitt’s Communications Department. Appropriate behavior is not codified, and the potential for conflicts of interest is considerable—a student’s grievance, for instance, might name the student’s own faculty supervisor.

McIntosh said a contract could provide for education of administrators, supervisors, and faculty regarding accommodations for students with disabilities. A clear and independent grievance process would also, she thinks, provide greater protections for students of color, queer and transgender students, and students who are parents.

A contract could also ensure adequate training for teaching assistants before they receive course assignments. Lack of training may result in graduate students having difficult initial experiences as teachers. “Student evaluations can help or hurt you on the job market,” said McIntosh. Brewster said that she hadn’t discerned much difference in how graduate students across departments reacted to her organizing efforts. The student union web site does have particular pages devoted to students in STEM disciplines and to international students, who are seen as particularly vulnerable to university scare tactics, given their status. “There are definite abuses in sciences,” she adds, sometimes related to students’ isolated work in labs.

“Every graduate student I know has a stake in our issues,” said McIntosh. The two organizers are encouraged by the support they’ve received from undergraduates and from the Community Support for Academic Workers (CSAW) group. Their biggest challenge, they say, is the resistance from the university, particularly the less-than-objective discussion of unionization on Pitt’s web site, and the machinations of the law firm (Ballard Spahr)  Pitt has hired to prevent an election.

“Our taxes and tuition dollars are helping to pay for that law firm,” observes McIntosh.

Neil Cosgrove is a member of The New People editorial collective and the Merton Center board.

(TMC newspaper VOL. 49 No. 2 March 2019. All rights reserved.)

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