Frequently Asked Questions

Election Timing and Process

Who is eligible to vote in the election?

As of March 11, 2019, a Hearing Examiner appointed by the PLRB has determined that academic appointments—teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants, graduate student researchers—can participate in an election to unionize. Trainees and fellows cannot participate. Emails have been sent to students who the University believes are eligible to vote. If you are unsure, you can still show up to vote and your ballot will be counted if the PLRB finds you are eligible.

Can international students vote?

Yes. International students can vote as long as they have an active appointment in one of the groups that the Hearing Examiner identified as eligible to participate in the election. These groups are: teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants and graduate student researchers.

Why should all eligible voters vote?

It is important that all students make their voice heard in the election. The election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not a majority of those eligible to vote. If the union receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast, the union will be certified as the exclusive bargaining representative for the entire bargaining unit. It is not 50 percent of the bargaining unit that determines the outcome, it is 50 percent of the people who actually vote.

If I signed a union authorization card do I have to vote "yes" in an election?

No. You do not have to vote "yes." Whether you signed a card or not does not matter anymore. Also, regardless of whether you signed a card, if you are eligible you should vote.

How do I know my ballot is secret?

The voter list that the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) uses for the election only has the names of the voters. When you appear to vote, the PLRB official will check your name on the list and may ask for your Pitt ID. Your address is not on the list and no one will know if you are an international student or not.  

If eligible to vote (your name is on the list), you will be given a ballot to complete in a voting booth. Your completed ballot will be placed in the ballot box. There is no identifying information on the ballot, which is a plain piece of paper. Only you know how you voted.

What rights do graduate students have during a unionization campaign?

Graduate students have the right to oppose, support, or remain neutral on the topic of unionization.

You are free to make your voice heard, regardless of whether you are in favor or are not in favor of the unionization effort. The University encourages open and respectful dialogue on this important issue.

Are graduate students required to respond to union organizers who ask to talk to them?

No. At the same time, graduate students are free to have these conversations.

What happens after the election?

After the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) announces the election results, either side can challenge the following:

  • the decision to hold the election;
  • the group that was permitted to vote (referred to as the “bargaining unit”); and
  • the way the PLRB conducted the election.

If a union is ultimately certified after legal challenges are finished, the parties begin the process of collective bargaining.

Can I opt out of a union if one is certified?

No. Every student in the bargaining unit will be bound by the results of the election and any collective bargaining agreement that may be negotiated, if a union is certified, including students who don't vote, those who vote "no," and students yet to come.

What Will I Know Before I Vote?

Can I see the union’s proposed contract before I vote?

No. No contract exists at this point in time. Negotiations about specific terms and conditions only occur after an election rules in favor of union representation and after the Union is certified.

Can we just try the union for a while and see how it goes?

Once certified by the PLRB as the exclusive bargaining representative, a union will always be the exclusive representative unless it is decertified by the PLRB, which cannot happen for at least a year after the union is certified.

Decertifying a union is rare. This move can only occur during certain timeframes and generally requires filing a petition that indicates a lack of support for the union followed by an election.

What would the dues be if a union were certified?

The union determines what dues students will pay. Standard options include having students pay a flat fee or a certain percentage of their graduate student stipend.

Do the United Steelworkers represent graduate students at any other universities?

No. The United Steelworkers union does not represent and has not represented graduate students at any college or university in the country.

Collective Bargaining Basics

What is collective bargaining?

During collective bargaining, representatives of a union and an employer meet, in good faith and at reasonable times, to negotiate mandatory subjects of bargaining, like stipends.

During this process, neither side can force the other to agree. Collective bargaining frequently takes months or even years—especially if it is the first time the two parties are working together. While these negotiations are active, the two parties are in a period called “status quo” which means that, in general, changes to the current working environment cannot be made.

If representatives from both sides reach an agreement—called a collective bargaining agreement (CBA)—that agreement binds both parties.

What is “bargaining in good faith”?

Bargaining in good faith means that each party considers the proposals submitted by the other side. It does not mean that one side must agree to a given proposal. The only issues that make it into the CBA are issues that are eligible for bargaining and that both parties agree on.

Who participates in collective bargaining?

Each side picks their own representatives for negotiations. The union decides how it selects who will bargain on its behalf. Some unions hold an election to select members of its bargaining committee but others do not.

Are You Covered and What Can Be Bargained?

What can be bargained?

A union can bargain over stipends, hours, and working conditions.

Unions cannot bargain over:

  • management rights, including:
  • the selection and direction of personnel;
  • standards of service;
  • budget;
  • technology use;
  • employee counts; and
  • the programs offered.
Who is covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?

Everyone in the bargaining unit is bound by the CBA. Currently, academic appointments—teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants and graduate student fellows—would be included. Trainees—including graduate students on training grants—and fellows would not be included.

Because students frequently move between different types of appointments, an individual could be covered by the CBA one semester but not the next.

How do I know what proposals will be made in bargaining?

There is no way to predict this. It is up the union to decide what kind of proposals to make in the bargaining process, and it is up to the union to decide what kind of input they get from members of the bargaining unit.

What if I don’t agree with what the union proposes?

Individual members of the bargaining unit do not have the right to veto the union’s bargaining proposals.

How do I know what changes a contract will bring?

There is no way to predict this. No one knows what a CBA looks like until it is negotiated.

For instance: A union could seek to negotiate the same stipend for all graduate students. This could result in lower stipends for students in some areas and impact the University’s capacity to recruit top students.

This scenario is under discussion at Temple University, which is the only graduate student union at a Pennsylvania public university. The president of the graduate student union at Temple University (TUGSA) has proposed ending higher stipends for students in certain fields. With a union, the University may not be able to change individual stipends and benefits to recruit and retain top students.

Another example: A CBA could limit whether or not research performed on assistantships could be used for academic purposes, including dissertations. These changes could limit research opportunities and options for some graduate students.

What if I don’t agree with the CBA?

CBAs are typically subject to ratification by members of the bargaining unit. However, the union may limit voting on the CBA to dues-paying members. Once the CBA is approved, it applies to all members of the bargaining unit. There is no way to opt out of the CBA.

Can I negotiate my own terms with my program?

No. Members of the bargaining unit cannot separately negotiate over stipends, benefits, or working conditions; they are bound by the terms of the CBA.

What Could Change as a Result of Collective Bargaining?

Could a union impact my ability to work with my faculty advisor to tailor my graduate school experience?

Yes. Unions negotiate contracts on behalf of the entire bargaining unit—not on behalf of its individual members. A union may limit the ability of the University and its faculty to work directly with graduate students and agree upon individualized conditions, accommodations or experiences that are the hallmarks of a graduate education.

Will a union give students more say in how decisions about academic appointments are made?

Currently, students can work with their faculty advisor and their program to make decisions about their own academic appointments.

With a union, the University is not permitted to discuss academic appointments directly with students, and as a result, students lose the ability to have an individual say in their specific program when it comes to appointments. The union has the exclusive right to speak on the behalf of graduate students when it comes to academic appointments and assignments could be determined in ways that are less adaptive to individual student needs.

It’s useful to note that the union cannot negotiate how many academic appointments the University offers.

How would a union improve my academic environment?

A union cannot bargain over academic decisions, since these are not "working conditions."

It’s worth noting that the Pennsylvania courts and the PLRB have never had to identify bargainable “terms and conditions” for graduate students whose teaching and research are part of their academic training.

The University believes that stipends and benefits could be subject to bargaining. The University also believes that the following areas are not subject to bargaining:

  • admission decisions;
  • selection of students for academic appointments;
  • academic requirements;
  • academic decisions by faculty and administrators;
  • budgeting and allocation of funds; and
  • the number of academic appointments.
Does union representation mean bigger stipends?

No. The union cannot guarantee certain benefits or changes.

What has happened at other public universities with graduate student unions?

Most graduate student unions at other public universities (including Michigan, Illinois and California) do not include graduate student researchers.

At Temple University, graduate students cannot be in the bargaining unit if they receive an academic benefit from what they are doing, which excludes most students on research appointments.

These bargaining units are very different from the one being proposed at Pitt.

Will a union give me the right to decide what tasks are parts of my academic appointment?

A union might seek to bargain over assignments, but the courts may have to decide whether they would have the ability to do so. The graduate union at Temple University does not have the right to bargain over assignments. Even the unionized faculty at Temple University do not have a say in how their classes are assigned.

Could a union result in students having to keep track of their hours?

Yes. A CBA could require students to track their hours, including lab hours. Students may also be asked to distinguish time spent on activities for an academic appointment versus academic research. For many graduate students, especially those in STEM fields, discerning between these two types of academic hours is not always possible.

Could a CBA result in a loss of flexibility over hours spent on academic appointments?

Yes. A CBA could require students to spend a fixed number of hours on academic appointments each week as opposed to the flexibility that they may currently have.

In addition, students cannot opt out of contractual limitations, and the University would be bound to observe them. So-called “direct dealing” is prohibited in a unionized environment. As a result, the University could be prohibited from working directly with students to address any concerns that they may have about their own hours or schedule.

If students have assistantship research that intertwines with dissertation research, a move to limit research hours could slow the progress of scholarly work.

If my stipend comes from external funding, could it still be impacted?

A student’s source of funding has no bearing on whether they will be represented the union and covered by the CBA. Faculty members who fund students on their grants and contracts, including an RO1, would need to adhere to the terms of the CBA and would not have the flexibility to modify these terms for individual students, projects, or stipends.

Could there be a strike?

Yes. The union has the right to call for a strike. If this occurs, graduate student stipends, health benefits and tuition waivers could be suspended. Strikes can also interrupt and even prolong the time needed to complete scholarly work.

Could a union limit the role of Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Government and other shared governance entities at the University?

Yes. If elected as the exclusive bargaining representative, the union will be the sole voice of graduate students in the bargaining unit. As a result, the University and faculty may be limited or prohibited from dealing with graduate students on councils and other governing bodies.

Graduate student representative serving on the Graduate and Professional Student Government, for instance, could lose the ability to speak, vote and engage in decision-making on behalf of their fellow classmates on certain topics.

In maintaining the status quo during contract negotiations, does the University continue to issue stipend increases?
The Steelworkers have said that Pitt would be required to continue to increase stipends each year while a contract was being negotiated if a union were certified. That’s just wrong. In fact, the PLRB faced the exact same argument by a union claiming that an employer had to continue to give wage increases that it traditionally provided at the same time every year while a first collective bargaining agreement was being negotiated. The PLRB rejected the argument, stating that under “Pennsylvania law, the alleged wage increase in this case cannot be considered as part of the status quo.” International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 743 v. Upper Leacock Township, 43 PPER 72 (Final Order, 2011).

How Does the University Currently Support Its Graduate Students?

What is Pitt doing about graduate student concerns?

Graduate students have indicated that the University is meeting their collective needs, according to recent survey data from the Graduate and Professional Student Government.

The University’s current system—which utilizes an approach called shared governance—enables graduate students to raise concerns and suggest improvements formally and informally at the department, school, and university level. Moreover, individual students can directly approach faculty advisors, department chairs, program directors and other administrators with concerns and questions.

Outcomes that graduate students have helped shape in recent years include:

  • Expanded Title IX services and staffing.
  • Increased graduate stipends by 13 percent over five years.
  • Expanded counseling services.
  • Removal of the name Parran Hall from the Graduate School of Public Health.
  • Expanded representation on Board of Trustees committees.
  • Creation of a Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • New University-wide graduate and professional student orientation.
  • Creation of a Parental Accommodation Policy.
  • New school-based system of omsbudspeople for graduate students.
  • Increased funding support for student-organized interdisciplinary workshops.

With a CBA, much of the current shared governance system is likely to change, given that a third party would be operate between the students and the University on applicable issues.

How do graduate students currently partner with the University?

Some specific ways (of many!) that graduate students are actively representing their classmates include:

  • University Council on Graduate Studies
  • University Planning and Budget Committee
  • University Research Council
  • Senate Budget Policies Committee
  • Senate Benefits and Welfare Committee
How does the University financially support graduate students?

The University’s stipends and health insurance benefits are highly competitive with other major research universities. Over the last five years, stipend levels for Pitt graduate students have increased by 13 percent, which is significantly more than the rate of inflation (7.8 percent) and more than increases in faculty and staff salaries during this same time period.

Academic year TA stipend for 2 semesters Annual % increase
2019–20 $18,910 2.5
2018–19 $18,450 3
2017-18 $17,910 2.6*
2016-17 $17,452 2.5
2015-16 $17,130 2.5
2014-15 $16,710 2.5

*Increase occurred effective spring 2017 term.

Do graduate students need a union to have their concerns heard?

The University does not believe students need a union to ensure their voices are heard. The University has a long history of working directly and closely with students to support their success. By contrast, the Steelworkers Union has no history of working with graduate students in this capacity.

Students currently have access to a wide range of formal and informal channels, which they can use to voice their opinions, raise concerns, share ideas and influence University policy and practice.

What Is the University’s Position on Graduate Student Unionization?

What does the University think about graduate student unionization?

Any one-size-fits-all approach limits an institution’s capacity to tailor options and accommodations according to students’ individual needs. Such limitations make it harder for the University to work directly with students to address their concerns and questions and make swift decisions that can address each student’s needs, wants, and goals, which are not uniform.

Why does the University hold this view?

The University is committed to offering graduate students a world-class education and believes that unionization hinders its ability to offer tailored and individualized programs that directly support student success.

The constraints of a union contract, which require a one-size-fits-all approach to a host of important issues, may restrict the University’s ability to attract and educate top students.