According to a Sept. 18 press release from United Steelworkers (USW), Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) called for a new grad union election after finding that University of Pittsburgh administrators had committed unfair labor practices to influence the outcome of the April union vote.
The ruling stated Pitt administrators’ anti-union actions included intimidation and misinformation, citing email efforts aimed at creating the impression the university was keeping track of who was voting and spreading false information over what the union could potentially bargain for.
PLRB Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmrich referred to these acts as “coercive” and believes they “potentially affected a large enough pool of eligible voters for the effect on the election to be manifest due to the extreme narrowness of the result.”
Shortly after the April election, student organizers accused Pitt of unfair labor practices and called for a second election.
University spokesperson Joe Miksch said in a May article in The Pitt News that the university followed all of the PLRB procedures and processes.
“The claims made by the United Steelworkers — that the administration set out to intimidate and coerce potential voters — are absurd, irresponsible, and false,” Miksch said in an email to TPN. “On the contrary, Pitt has encouraged all eligible graduate students to get informed and exercise their right to vote and remains dedicated to supporting all students and their success, regardless of their views on unionization.”
During the election, union-vote poll watchers asked voters to show ID and spell their names before marking them on a list to be sent to Pitt administrators. This action is part of larger effort to intimidate voters known as “list-making.”
Even before the first election, student organizers claimed Pitt was intentionally obstructing unionization efforts. Between 2016 and 2018, Pitt spent $240 thousand on Philadelphia based law firm Ballard Spahr. The firm lists “union avoidance” as a service on its website.
Despite organization efforts beginning in 2016, it wasn’t until December 2017 that Pitt grad employees filed for a union election with PLRB. The request came around the same time a Title IX investigation was opened into allegations of harassment in the communications department. The investigation was opened in response to an article written by former Pitt communications professor Carol Stabile suggesting that, during her nine years in the position, she witnessed a climate “hostile toward women — one that harbored serial sexual harassers.” Organizers believe a union would allow for greater protection from harassment and discrimination as well as greater transparency and a voice in university decisions that affect them.
In addition to a second vote, Helmrich has ordered Pitt to publicly share the ruling’s decision and disclose their efforts to suppress voters.