Union organizers lobby for support

Jane Stueckemann, Managing Editor

Students may have noticed green signs put up on campus a few weeks ago that say “something doesn’t add up” when it comes to Pitt female faculty. These signs allude to a larger issue that some Pitt-Johnstown professors are afraid to talk about—faculty unionization.

Two Pitt-Johnstown professors declined to be identified when commenting on the union effort.

One tenured Pitt-Johnstown assistant professor said he did not want to be identified because if the effort fails, administrators still have control over his raises and promotions.

A non-tenured Pitt-Johnstown professor said that she feared losing her job if she spoke out about the union.

This effort is being organized across Pitt campuses with help from United Steelworkers Academic Workers Association organizers.

Tyler Bickford, Pitt-Oakland assistant English professor, said that a core campaign issue is gender equity in regard to salary.

“Male faculty are significantly overrepresented in high ranks and in high pay, and women faculty are underrepresented (in those areas),” Bickford said.

Bickford also said that the professors who do the most teaching are the least compensated.

“The majority of faculty…are hired semester to semester or year to year, and adjunct faculty have to piece together their work at multiple institutions. It means professors don’t have the time or bandwidth to invest in the student body,” Bickford said.

Association organizer Damon DiCicco said that, whenever a union is organized, there is most likely going to be pushback from the employer.

“At Pitt we don’t expect any direct retaliation, because Pitt is a public-relations-conscious institution. It’s also illegal to retaliate against people for supporting a union, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still subtle things that can happen,” DiCicco said

DiCicco said those subtle things might be moving someone to an office without a window, or scrutinizing an adjunct professor more closely to find a reason not to renew their contract.

However, he said that it is often safer if people are open with their union support.

“It’s counterintuitive, but if (administrators) do retaliate, we have a record to show that that person has been active with the union,” DiCicco said.

Pitt-Johnstown administrators did not respond for comment.

Pitt-Oakland English senior lecturer Jennifer Lee said she can understand how some faculty members don’t feel safe enough to comment.

“I feel safe in my department, but other faculty members don’t always have that,” Lee said.

Lee said that, in the year she’s been involved in the organization effort, it’s the first time that she feels there has been any action forward.

“I’ve worked at Pitt for about 20 years now, and I’ve witnessed the pay disparities between ranks…and I got fed up with it. Even though we had meetings about these things, nothing had changed,” Lee said.

Lee said that before this, she has had a demoralizing experience of only lip service from administrators.

Her union effort responsibility is to speak with other faculty members about the organization.

“The only way somebody like me has any power is to be in a union with other faculty, so that we actually have a voice and something behind us. We need to make demands in concert with each other.

“The fact is that I’m actually doing something, and it has given me this wonderful sense of hope,” Lee said.

Bickford said that the campaign’s slogan is that faculty working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

“If faculty are secure in their positions, they have more mental space to focus on their work and not constantly being anxious about where their next paycheck is going to come from,” Bickford said.

Bickford said that students should care about the unionization effort because faculty can invest more time into their students if they don’t have to worry about their jobs.

On the organization’s website, Pitt-Johnstown justice administration and criminology professor Ross Kleinstuber gave his testimony supporting the unionization.

“Forming a union will allow Pitt faculty to negotiate for better wages, more frequent pay and an end to unpaid extra work,” Kleinstuber wrote.

He wrote that, even though students pay tuition for their internship credits, he is not paid to supervise those courses—and therefore, that is unpaid work.

“A union would give us the bargaining power to change these and many other practices that disadvantage Pitt faculty,” Kleinstuber wrote.

In January, organization members started formally collecting authorization cards, on which faculty members give their support for the union.

According to organizer DiCicco, there are to be 4,000 cards, which is the organization’s bargaining unit.

The organizers are to then take those cards to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, whose members are to verify them.

“If at least 30 percent of faculty have signed, the labor relations board will have an election (to unionize). If more than 50 percent of faculty have signed cards, the administration would have the option of voluntarily recognizing a union,” DiCicco said.

While he said he doesn’t expect administrators to do that, hundreds have signed cards so far.