This summer, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations board (PLRB) ruled that Pitt faculty may hold another vote on unionization, which began on Aug. 27 and will end on Oct. 12; the PLRB will start counting ballots on Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. This will be the faculty’s fifth attempt to unionize since 1976.
Dr. Beverly Gaddy, associate professor of political science and president of Pitt’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been involved in faculty union efforts for six years and believes it is important for tenured, full-time faculty to show solidarity to faculty with more at stake in the election.
“I am a supporter of labor and workers. … The faculty have to stand together, regardless of rank, regardless of what our contract is,” Dr. Gaddy said. “We need to stand together and look out for all of us, as a university.”
Dr. Gaddy said that most who are in support of unionization are primarily concerned with the working conditions of part-time, adjunct, and visiting instructors, who may be working only on semester-long contracts.
These instructors are paid less than full-time faculty and often do not know if they will be offered a contract until a few weeks before the semester begins. Most of these positions are outside of the tenure-track as well, meaning there will never be an opportunity for these faculty to earn a permanent contract.
Dr. Gaddy and other students, faculty, and staff in support of the union believe improving job security for these instructors will have a direct effect on students’ educational outcomes.
“If a faculty member is not worrying about their next meal, their next paycheck, they could focus more on their mission to teach,” Dr. Gaddy said. “Precarity is not helpful for students. … [A union] will make sure that all faculty have what they need to do their jobs, make sure that they have a contract, make sure that they’re paid a living wage.”
President Dr. Robert Gregerson worked as a faculty member at four universities, one of which was unionized. He neither supports nor opposes the faculty union, as he’s a member of the University’s management, but he believes that regardless of the election results, students should not be concerned.
“Honestly, students won’t notice [a faculty union] if it’s done right,” Dr. Gregerson said. “That would mostly be between University management and faculty.”
Dr. Gregerson does agree that some adjunct or part-time instructors could face financial difficulty but feels that this is a nationwide issue rather than a Pitt issue.
“If we look at the overall market, we’re [paying] kind of in the middle,” Dr. Gregerson said. “I think we can all do better by our adjuncts. Adjuncts work very hard and are very, very valuable. … They lend an awful lot of support to the programs they’re in.”
The death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French who taught at Duquesne University for 25 years, particularly impacted Dr. Gaddy. Vojtko passed shortly after Duquesne decided not to renew her teaching contract.
Duquesne didn’t offer Vojtko severance or retirement benefits, as she was an adjunct. At the time, she was undergoing radiation therapy and became practically homeless because she could no longer afford to maintain her home and continue her cancer treatment without her salary. She died of a heart attack at 83, and her body was found on her front lawn.
“It was just tragic,” Dr. Gaddy said. “How can you be a faculty member in a place of privilege and not have your heart just break for the people who are treated so badly?”
University community members who are in favor of the faculty union have shared concerns regarding the administration’s hiring of “union avoidance” law firms such as Ballard Spahr. Pitt paid Ballard Spahr $881,069 for their counsel last year, raising the University’s total payments to the firm to at least $2,191,703. “Union avoidance” lawyers can make over $700 an hour.
In January, former University spokesperson Kevin Zwick told the Pitt News that “legal expenditures are paid from our general operating budget, which is funded from a variety of sources, including tuition.” Dr. Gaddy and others in support of union efforts are concerned that tuition could be spent on union avoidance lawyers.
“It’s not an honest way to spend tuition money,” Dr. Gaddy said, “especially because I would imagine that most students are supportive of the union.”
Some faculty opposed to unionization believe that United Steelworkers (USW), who is helping faculty organize, got involved solely to profit off of the potential union. However, Dr. Gregerson said that this would not be an issue if the union won the election.
“From my experience, that shouldn’t happen,” Dr. Gregerson said. “This would all be laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. … All union dues typically support the union itself, so there would be no way for [USW] to spend them elsewhere.”
Dr. Gaddy wants faculty who are unsure of how to vote to consider the experiences of people like Vojtko and other part-time and adjunct instructors.
“People can be worried about what this might mean. Maybe they feel they might be better off not making changes,” Dr. Gaddy said. “But we have to stand in solidarity with one another. And I’ve been tenured for years, so I’m not worried about my job security, but I have to watch out for the people who are coming up, or people here at this campus who’ve been working for decades without a continuing contract.”