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State Labor Relations Board To Hear Arguments For, Against Pitt Grad Student Unionization

90.5 WESA
University of Pittsburgh graduate students say they should be permitted to unionized, since they are treated similarly to employees of the institution.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board is slated to hold hearings this week on whether University of Pittsburgh graduate students have the right to hold a vote to form a union. 

Students filed for a union election in the spring, but the university argues graduate students are not employees, and therefore don't have the right to unionize.

"We have concerns that unionization would interfere with some of the ways in which we have managed our graduate programs in the past," said Nathan Urban, Pitt's vice provost for graduate studies.

However, some graduate students argue they are workers, as there are research and teaching requirements attached to their positions. Those who want to unionize say they'd be better equipped to negotiate fair pay and protect their current benefits and working conditions from change.

The PLRB has ruled in favor of graduate students in previous, similar cases. It sided with Temple University graduate students in 2001 and Penn State University graduate students in 2016. Penn State  University graduate students voted against unionizing, so Temple's graduate student union is the only one of its kind in the commonwealth.

Timothy Barr, a graduate student in Pitt's Department of Communications, said these previous rulings mean unionization efforts by graduate students at other public Pennsylvania universities are protected.

"Graduate student employees at Pittsburgh feel that the university is actively working to take away our right," Barr said.

Urban said Pitt's graduate student program is different from those of Penn State and Temple when the PLRB made those decisions and he still believes the Board could rule in favor of the university.

Pitt has hired the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr, which lists among its services "union avoidance training" and "decertification and withdrawal of union recognition." Barr said he and other graduate students believe this is a waste of tuition dollars and public funds.

"Many of us are very concerned about the state of the university's relationship to graduate students," Barr said.

Urban said the aquisition of the law firm was out a lack of internal resources.

"Unionization is a complex issue, we felt like it was such an important issue that we needed to contact outside experts about this," Urban said.

If the board sides with Pitt's graduate students, they will need a majority vote to approve unionization.

90.5 WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.