Student Perspectives

Throughout this process, students have voiced concerns that, while they have heard directly from union organizers, they have not heard from their peers who take a different view. Several asked how they might connect with their fellow graduate students and share their thoughts. In keeping with our efforts to provide students with the opportunity to hear and evaluate as many viewpoints as possible, we have reprinted their quotes below with permission.

The union has offered nothing except scare tactics that are clearly not realistic: Your health insurance is great but the University can take it away whenever they want, the University deal with the Port Authority could be canceled at any time, the University doesn't have to provide career services are all examples I can recall being told.

[Union organizers] promise things we already have, such as paid maternity leave, great health insurance, Title IX protections, which are federally mandated and have nothing to do with a union, and other grievance procedures/protections. (I was physically attacked by another student about a year ago and got great support from both the Pitt Police and the University.)

Unfortunately, we have only received emails from pro-union students, creating the misconception that the desire for unionization is ubiquitous among all our peers. I’d like to offer a different perspective and share a short list of concerns.

In talking to many of my colleagues about this issue, the response I get most often is, 'I don’t know enough about it.'

I believe that this sits at the core of the issue—no one knows what the outcome of collective bargaining will be. While we are promised ‘higher stipends’ by those in favor of unionization, let us remember that this is collective bargaining and the University will still largely regulate our pay. Furthermore, stipend increases will likely create a ‘whack-a-mole’ effect, whereby other things give way to accommodate the increases. We already have access to many of the ‘gains’ described by those in favor of unionization—indeed, our health insurance is among the best that money can buy—and it’s provided to us at no cost. Overall, there is a great deal of uncertainty in this process that should be recognized before voting.

Our colleagues who are in favor of unionization claim that the University’s adoption of an anti-unionization stance is motivated by money. Keep in mind that the United Steelworkers (USW) has a clear financial interest in convincing graduate students to unionize. Based on the numbers given (by those who are pro-unionization!), USW would collect up to $500 per student annually in union dues. Given approximately 2,000 eligible graduate students, this means that USW stands to receive nearly one million dollars per year. Of course, members are not required to pay dues, but it is unfair to characterize only the University as having a financial interest in this issue. Organizers argue that USW is a nonprofit—but so are Pitt and UPMC.

 There seems to be a common misunderstanding that TA/TFs across departments get paid differently that I think needs to be addressed. Also, if true, I think it would be good to point out that if you are TA/TF that health insurance and a tuition waiver are included no matter the department (if this is the case). The union is working at an angle that the difference in pay/benefits for TA/TF is so bad that we need a union in order to make sure everyone gets the same. They neglect that a lot of the pay disparity is due to the number of appointments, which is not something a union can fix.

Note: The TA and TF base stipends are set university-wide and do not vary from department to department. Also, by university policy, all TAs receive an individual health insurance plan at no cost while they are appointed and for a full year if they are appointed in the fall and spring.

 The union adds a middleman into relationships, and that means costs are going to go up when education is already extremely expensive.

Our stipends do not allow for luxuries, but are sufficient for basic living and making it through a few years of school. I have friends, not in academics, who have salaries around 42k/year and bring home the same amount as I do (as a GSR) each month after taxes, health, retirement, etc. Even small increases in stipends will most likely be immaterial after the union takes its fees! The worst part is, if a union is elected, we will be paying the union even if they effectively change nothing.

This week, the union has spread lies indicating that people are being turned away from voting even if they are eligible to vote. In addition, the Steelworkers have promoted the idea that the administration is against the graduate students—which is not true. The administration has been very attentive and vocal about this. I am disappointed that the union has made this into a 'battle' between Pitt and the unionists.

The union cannot guarantee the following things that they have told me they will do: increase pay, increase fairness in academic appointments, provide better health insurance, provide more mental health resources, immediately intervene on issues on an individual level, reduce on-campus abuse.

Note: The University is not turning away anyone at the polling locations. The PLRB is making all decisions about who can vote based on eligibility parameters set by the PLRB hearing examiner—those with academic appointments as teaching assistants, teaching fellows, graduate student assistants and graduate student researchers.