Hillary Lazar, a 39-year-old graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, had to rely on food stamps to eat during her pregnancy. Her son, Benji, now 2, wouldn’t have health insurance if not for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program because the cost of adding him to the university health-care plan was more than half of her monthly take-home pay.
It’s been so difficult, she said, to balance her competing responsibilities as a researcher, educator, and parent, that she’s often thought about abandoning her studies. “I can’t tell you what it’s like, not knowing if we’re going to be able to provide food for my kid,” she said.
Lazar is not the only graduate-student worker at Pitt—or across the country—struggling to survive. Members of the graduate-workers union at the New School, who went on strike at the end of this past spring semester, claim they’re being compensated for just a fraction of the labor they provide for the university. Graduate students at Ohio University, where the minimum stipend paid for a full assistantship is one-third of a living wage, report paying a significant portion of their stipend back to the university in fees and health-care costs.
And this March—mirroring the fights at both Penn State University and Temple University—Pittsburgh administrators contested graduate students’ ability to call for a union vote. Their argument follows those posed by Pennsylvania’s other major universities. “The university believes that graduate students are students—not workers—and we are following the process set by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board [PLRB] to establish this case,” Pitt said in a statement to the Post-Gazette. Pitt has decided to pursue this stance despite the PLRB’s February 2018 rejection of the Penn State University’s use of the same argument to block a union vote on its campus.
In a hearing set for the first week of October, the PLRB will decide if Pittsburgh graduate students can hold a vote.
Echoing the complaints rising up throughout the country, Pitt’s graduate-student workers feel that, without a union, they are powerless to address the circumstances of their professional life. “Right now, we have no seat at the table with university administration as far as the decisions that affect our daily lives,” Beth Shaaban, former Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) organizer and newly minted PhD in epidemiology, said. “If something were to happen that we were not happy with, as a graduate worker, the university would be under no obligation to bargain with us.”
Starting in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences and spreading to the university’s other graduate schools, including Engineering, Public Health, and Social Work, GSOC organizers tapped into a long-standing frustration over the vast power differential between the university and graduate students.
Sexual misconduct, for example, is a primary issue. Shaaban said that in talking with graduate workers from across the university, she had been surprised to find “just how pervasive a concern” it is, noting that a union could provide victims of sexual misconduct protection from retaliation and the leverage to force the university to address the issue.
Another problem, according to GSOC, is a lack of transparency about departmental decision making that affects graduate workers’ livelihood. Graduate workers at Pitt are either teaching assistants/fellows or research assistants, and research generally pays more. Workers rotate through these positions based on departmental judgments to which they are not privy.
GSOC also argues there’s not enough protection for graduate-student workers’ benefits, specifically regarding things like accommodations for new parents. The university offers a six-week Parental Accommodation Period, to be negotiated between graduate students and their advisers, which allows students to postpone assignments, tests, and benchmarks. However, there’s such a pervasive fear of falling behind in one’s program that this accommodation cannot be fully guaranteed to all. Lazar knows student workers who have returned to teaching fewer than six weeks after giving birth and one who Skyped in to teach a class as soon as the very next day.
Meanwhile, across the country, tuition for graduate programs continues to rise, and with it average grad-student debt. Reports of harassment and abuse, both sexual and otherwise, from academic advisers and supervisors abound. Studies suggest graduate and PhD students experience high levels of anxiety and depression, with one recent study reporting that graduate students are six times more likely than the general public to suffer from anxiety and depression.
In 2014, the GSOC at the University of Pittsburgh began organizing independently, and in affiliation with the United Steelworkers, around the idea of a union for graduate-student workers. In the past few years, three of Pennsylvania’s largest universities—Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Pennsylvania—have fought against graduate-student workers’ attempts to unionize. Employees of the state’s public universities are guaranteed the right to collective bargaining by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), but all three schools looked to Philadelphia-based union-busting law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP to contest graduate-student workers’ eligibility for union representation. (Temple University, another of the state’s major universities, has had a recognized graduate-student union since 2001, but the administration similarly opposed their right to unionize with the help of Ballard Spahr.)
Despite pushback against graduate-student worker unionization from the state’s major educational institutions, in December 2017 four GSOC organizers drove to Harrisburg to hand-deliver the required signature cards from at least 30 percent of Pitt’s more than 2,000 graduate students to PLRB requesting a vote on whether or not to unionize. They had spent the previous eight months “pounding the pavement, talking to our colleagues, going to every school on campus, and talking to everyone” about the possibility of unionization and what they stand to gain, said Shaaban. It was a process of “collective consciousness raising,” Lazar said, to show their fellow graduate-student workers that it doesn’t have to be this way—that it shouldn’t be taken for granted that some graduate-student workers will need to rely on government safety-net programs to survive.
In a Facebook post, GSOC alleged that, “At a recent panel discussion, University of Pittsburgh’s Vice Provost for Graduate Studies admitted that the three administrations” had spoken to each other about matters including union activity. The University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Communications could not be reached for comment.
If, after the hearing, PLRB affirms GSOC’s right to hold a union vote—something that could take months of deliberation, based on the Penn State decision—they will first verify that 30 percent of all graduate-student workers have expressed a desire to vote by checking the signatures hand-delivered by Shaaban and her colleagues in December against an Excelsior list (a document provided by the university listing all employees eligible to participate in the union vote). Then PLRB will facilitate a simple-majority secret-ballot election on the prospect of unionizing. If 51 percent of graduate workers vote to unionize, the new union will then assemble a bargaining committee, and the university will be legally compelled to recognize them and begin bargaining a contract in good faith.
As for the question that plagues union struggles in campuses across the country—are graduate students workers?—Shaaban said she feels the answer is fairly clear. Graduate-student workers teach and grade in undergraduate classes and conduct research in nearly all of Pitt’s departments and schools, drawing a paycheck and health care from the university as well as paying taxes on their income. “We are teaching assistants and teaching fellows and graduate-student researchers,” she said. “So what would happen if we all stopped doing our jobs?”