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.”