Pitt Grads Testify at PLRB on Union Rights

CONTACTS: Jess Kamm (412) 562-2446, jkamm@usw.org, or Jeff Cech (412) 339-4843, jcech@usw.org

PITTSBURGH – Members of USW’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee this week participated in a hearing before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), testifying that they are employees at the University of Pittsburgh with the right to form a union. 

“We teach classes that would otherwise be taught by part-time faculty and do research that could otherwise be done by staff. We receive wages for this work and pay taxes,” said Golnar Touski a graduate student employee in the history of art and architecture department. “We are students, but we are also university employees.”

In December 2017, the union petitioned the PLRB for an election for graduate employees classified as teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants and graduate student researchers. 

In response, the university administration contested the election and hired Ballard Spahr, a law firm known for opposing unionization efforts.

Both sides now have the opportunity to present evidence to the PLRB.

“It’s deeply disturbing that the university is using tuition and tax dollars to pay high priced attorneys to disaffirm the work we do on campus and deny us labor rights,” said Ben Case a graduate student employee in the sociology department, “especially when this same law firm lost this same case making these same arguments at Penn State last year.”

The hearing began Monday, Oct. 1. The administration’s attorneys had two days scheduled to call their witnesses. However, they stretched the testimony of Vice Provost of Graduate Studies Nate Urban over nearly a day and a half. As a result, the hearing, which was expected to conclude at the end of the day on Friday, Oct. 5, will now need to resume at a later date. 

“Their arguments are muddled, but their motives are clear. This isn’t about whether or not we’re employees. It’s a deliberate strategy to undermine our efforts to have a voice on campus by delaying our organizing and preserving their legal options going forward,” said Abby Cartus a graduate student employee in the epidemiology department. “The administration’s testimony makes clear that they fully intend to keep challenging us even if we win the board hearing and the election.”

The PLRB affirmed the rights of graduate students to form a union at Temple University in 2001 and again at Penn State University earlier this year.

The Academic Workers Association is part of the USW, which represents 850,000 workers in North America employed in many industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, the service and public sectors and higher education. 


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