University of Pittsburgh organizer Beth Shaaban said unionizing graduate students is more important now than ever in light of the proposed tax bill in Congress.
A provision in the House tax bill would make graduate student’s tuition, which is often waived in exchange for research and teaching, taxable income. Many students estimate their tax burden would increase by around 300 percent, while their stipends for their work would stay the same.
Grad students across the county have protested the provision, saying for many, graduate education could become unaffordable.
Shaaban, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology who works as a research assistant, said the university will have to do something so students don't leave in droves.
“Do we want to face that on our own in which the only way we can bargain is one individual at a time with the administration in order to ask them to help us?” she asked. “Or do we want to be in a position of power in which we’ve already come together in union and can have a seat at the table that is backed by legal standing?”
Pitt graduate students working to organize said they are on track to file a request for a vote to unionize next week.
Students assisted by the United Steelworkers have been collecting authorization cards in support of a vote since February. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board requires at least 30 percent of potential union members to submit authorization cards before it considers whether to hold a vote.
Pitt Provost Patricia Beeson wrote an open letter this fall urging students to study the pros and cons of forming a union. She said a graduate student union was not in the best interest of the students, and that governance structures within the university could be used to address student concerns. She went on to say that education, not financial support, is the goal of graduate study.
Beeson announced last month that she plans to step down from her position and return to teaching beginning in the fall of 2018.
The students say they want more job security, due process, better and fairer pay and a say in their workload and hours. Shaaban said there is lack of transparency and control over how decisions are made that affect work assignment or funding for a grad assistantship.
If the Labor Relations Board approves the students' request, they could vote at the beginning of the spring semester. For a union to become reality, a majority of the more than 2,000 graduate students would have to support the effort.
Nationally, grad student workers have unionized at 36 universities, according to Pitt's graduate student organizing committee.