Melissa V. Harris-Perry: It's been years in the making, but faculty at the University of Pittsburgh have voted overwhelmingly to form a union, making it the country's largest new faculty union assembled in a decade. Now, the process started in 2015, and in the year since, faculty at Pitt have been met with opposition from school leadership, which included paying an anti-union law firm, $2 million since efforts to unionize first started, but after allying with the United Steelworkers, North America's largest industrial union with more than a million members, the faculty union effort passed a vote last week.
Now, more than 3,300 people are part of its collective bargaining unit. To find out more about how this unionization came into being. I spoke with Paul E. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Communication at University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the Union Organizing Committee.
Paul E. Johnson: It's really a very long process. It's even longer than six years in some ways, because there've been efforts to organize the university going back to the 1970s and the 1990s. Those previous efforts really had informed the efforts of faculty here, who got together back in 2015, and started to talk about some of the things that they were upset about in the workplace, that salaries for faculty at a world-class university, especially, for lecturers and adjuncts weren't really keeping up with our peers, the reliance on adjuncts and the over alliance on that precarious working class was something else that really had worried people.
Even the things that people liked about the job here, for example, some of our benefits. There were worries that those might not be permanent, if there ever came a time for further austerity. Faculty started having conversations with one another about what they could do. There were some folks around, who'd been part of those efforts in the 1990s, and they talked a little bit with them about what happened, and what some of the roadblocks that had been, and what some of the opportunities were in the present, and conversations went from there.
They went from conversations from some faculty to between a whole lot of the faculty, as we started to canvas and talk to our colleagues, and understand their concerns, and figure out whether or not a union would be right for the faculty at Pitt. The same thing informed our process of thinking about who we wanted to associate ourselves with as a faculty, because there's a lot of options for that as well. It was a whole lot of conversations that took a whole lot of time, and it's really been decades in the making.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: All right. I want to dive into some of these pieces that you've begun to lay out here. Especially, for folks who, for them may be the idea of college faculty sounds like, "Why in the world would you need labor protection? Don't you guys just teach a couple times a week, smoke pipes, have patches on your arms," or on basically, on your tweet jackets, right?
I think for folks, for many people, even to say the language of faculty may not clarify all the different kinds of roles and different levels of security that folks have. Can you may be walk us through some of those aspects?
Paul E. Johnson: Absolutely, yes. Our faculty union here at Pitt is all ranks, which is one way to organize a faculty union, and what that means is, you've got all of these different job classifications that exist in the university system. I'll talk a little bit about each of those. You have adjuncts who are typically hired on à la carte basis just to teach classes. That means that they're often teaching, not just at one institution, but to make ends meet, they might be teaching at three or four institutions.
I know we have faculty at Pitt, for example, who also teach classes at Robert Morris, Point Park, Duquesne and some of the other universities in the area. Those folks are likely being paid a few thousand dollars per class. They're hustling around the whole city, maybe in a single day to be on three, four different campuses. They don't usually have office space that's dedicated for them.
They are also considered in the university's system for designation, more or less temporary employees. Their IDs expire every four months, and at Pitt your ID gets you free access to the bus, so that's a huge, huge issue. That's one group of folks, and then you have lecturers whose jobs are focused primarily on teaching, but everybody who's not an adjunct, usually, has a lot of service obligations.
At Pitt our lecturers teach three classes a semester. They often advise undergraduate students. They often mentor these students. They have office hours and work closely with these students. They also have a lot of service obligations in terms of developing curriculum. They have responsibilities for attending faculty meetings, sometimes for being part of internal governance mechanisms at the university.
If you're a lecturer at Pitt, you are among the worst paid people in your class at cognate universities in the United States. They're really busy, they're very busy. Then, you have tenured and tenure stream faculty, and to the extent that there's some kernel of truth in the smoking jacket stereotype, these are the people that are imagined as doing that work, research faculty, but in practice, research faculty are also extraordinarily busy.
They have tons of service obligations and research obligations and teaching obligations. If you're not yet tenured, then you're often being judged on the quality of your research and teaching, and so you've got to be-- And your service. You're working overtime on all three of those things to make sure that you've got a sterling record when you come up for tenure. Of course, the competition in academia, like in most areas of our society has only gotten more intense.
You're expected now to produce way more research than you would have been 20 years ago, 30 years ago, or 40 years ago. If you're a tenured faculty member, then you're still required to research to be promoted, from associate professor to full professor, and you have a lot of service obligations. Very often, as soon as you're out of the fire of draining research intensity, you find yourself placed on dozens of committees for graduate students, for university service, for disciplinary service. It's a 60-hour a week job the whole time through, rather than a lot of time spent at the university club with some of the finest scotches of the world.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: [chuckles] Yes, I think there may have been some time in the American Academy when that was partly true, but it is certainly not the experience of the American Academy now. I'll just add one more piece is often also for tenure and tenure stream faculty, those responsibilities of grant writing, and of obtaining external funding, especially depending on where you are in the natural and social sciences and humanities in professional schools. Okay, so your union is not only representative of all faculty across all of the Pitt campuses, but it's also affiliated with the United Steelworkers, help us understand that.
Paul E. Johnson: Yes, it's really been fascinating. That's one of the things that's interested that people the most about the campaign, and for us, it seemed like a natural decision because they're in the Allegheny County region and the surrounding region, they've long-represented people. They've also got recent experience working with folks in academic units.
They've been a part of faculty who organized at Robert Morris and Point Park, which are both universities in the area.
They also work with some workers in the academic sector up in Toronto actually. They're not just this blue collar, producerist in it, of the hardworking steel man. They've always represented actually a lot of-- For a long time represented a lot of different sectors of the economy. For a lot of the people on faculty, as we were talking about, what do we want to see in a union? What do we need?
We were impressed by the USW's history of advocating for its workers, achieving strong contracts, and then having their workers back when serious disputes came up. The fact that it was in Pittsburgh made it in some ways, all the more resonant, because we were thinking about, "Well, what does labor look like the United States?" There's a lot of stereotypes about what is real work?
What is real labor, but the idea that do University of Pittsburgh faculty could be affiliated with steelworkers, in some way, you put those two things together, and if that's what we're doing, then steelworker doesn't just mean what people think it means in one sense, and faculty, doesn't just mean what faculty means to some people in another sense.
We have a faculty that are affiliated with the steelworkers, and that means that we get to bargain, negotiate, and behave as such. It's really about the legacies of the Steel City and also what that legacy is going to look like into the future, and how you can't necessarily project things just from the past.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Can you talk a bit about the long road to unionization? Typically, a road might not be that long to a union process. Did you all meet with resistance?
Paul E. Johnson: There were some difficulties. I'll say up front, we're very excited to be on the brink of negotiating with the administration, like partners and, we know while it was a really tough fight, there's a sense that as time move forward, and work together for a better university for faculty, students, staff, administrators, really everybody, but we did have some roadblocks. During the organizing phase, in a union effort, you have to basically prove that there's interest from the faculty to have a union.
That requires basically what's called a card drop, where you go around and faculty member are offered cards to sign, just to say, "I'd be interested in a union." Not even necessarily, "Hey, I think we should have a union. It should be this union, but we're going to have a vote and we're going to figure out whether or not we want to be a unionized faculty." We dropped those cards in January of 2017 when we'd already been organizing for a couple years.
Basically, that card drop, you have a year from when the cards go to when the cards are tabulated. At the end of that, when we got to the tabulation point, the administration and us had a dispute over whether or not we hit our 30% threshold, which is the threshold required to say that you've showed cause for an election. Each side submits names. The Pennsylvania Labor Review Board eventually evaluated the names and made a ruling.
They found that the university's list had a bunch of people on it, who hadn't worked at Pitt in a really long time, or had done things for Pitt, but hadn't necessarily been paid for those things, were more like volunteers. They found actually that we did clear that 30% threshold and could have an election. That was a difficulty.
Then, we also had some issues over the composition of the bargaining unit and its size with some 11th hour actions, as an election was about to be called over who would be members of that. Again, the PLRB found in our favor on those questions, and decided that we could go ahead with unit that we had proposed, and that eventually voted a 71% in favor of unionization.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Now, let's go back to something that you said in the process of unionizing, and the entire process of organizing. One of the questions you said was, so what kind of union do we want to be, and what do we want? Let me ask, what is it you want, what is it you need?
Paul E. Johnson: Well, it's a great question. It's one that we're always in the process of answering, in part, because now that we're moving into the bargaining phase. We have to start to have more conversations with folks who during the campaign had either been very aggressively neutral on the question of unionization, or even opposed to the question of unionization, but they're a part of this unit too.
We are having ongoing conversations with them about their view of the university, their view of their job, what they need to do their jobs better. What we all need to do our jobs better, but I think in terms of things that folks have been talking about, we're looking at lots of things that need to improve here at the university. I know during the pandemic concerns over kinship and childcare had gone from something that was already a problem, to a huge issue.
Folks are concerned that we are having costs for our healthcare increase that are not being matched by the raises that we were receiving. Locking in the benefits that the university that we have that are good. Also, thinking about the ways that we can compensate folks and put them in a more comfortable position, so that they're not having anxiety on the day-to-day about their job, whether or not they're going to be renewed next semester, whether out they're going to be able to make ends meet, and instead let them focus on their world-class task of teachers, researchers.
Pitt's a place where there's a lot of really cutting-edge scientific and medical developments that are taking place. We want everybody to be able to focus on those parts of their jobs, and not worry so much about the compensation, and benefit side of the equation.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Last question has to do with the COVID 19 moment. It has been a bit of, maybe an awakening, certainly, not yet a reckoning, but an awakening in American higher ed around the-- At least, the theory of faculty governance of universities versus is a reality in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, and particularly, when it very first hit in the spring of 2020, and the speed with which many university administrators were able to make a wide range of budgetary, and even structural decisions about their campuses because of the nature of the crisis.
I think there's been, and feel free to push back on this, but there's been a bit of an awakening around, "Wait a minute, are faculty actually governing their universities?" I'm wondering if that has been raised in conversations at Pitt, and if so, how you might see unionizing as being part of the broader faculty governance question.
Paul E. Johnson: Absolutely. From the start of the campaign, as we had thousands of conversations with colleagues, workplace democracy, transparency, i.e. why is the administration, making certain decisions that they're making, and shared governance were all really important values that popped up in these conversations. COVID, I think really underscored and amplified those as concerns, because there were certainly lots of channels through which faculty could make their opinions and perspectives known to the administration, and yet the decisions that were being made by the administration, very often, seemed to be at odds with a lot of what faculty were saying.
Obviously, COVID put everybody in a very difficult situation, but I think that there was a sense that shared governance needed to have a little more in the way of teeth, and there needed to be even more substance to our position as faculty, and being able to make our voices heard. Receiving even just earlier guidance and clarity about questions like masks in the classroom. Is there going to be a vaccination mandate? If there is, what are the reasons for that? If there isn't, what are the reasons for that?
Relying on the guidance that is given from, Pitt has world-class school of public health. How's the university incorporating and responding to that advice that is being given on the ground from experts? People were, frankly, in the dark about a lot of that process, and why decisions were being made.
There is I think, certainly, both broadly and here has been this notion that universities are places that are dedicated to the study of democracy, that are interested in furthering knowledge and furthering the development of a civic arena where people's claims are listened to and taken really seriously, and unionization is a path that will help ensure that, the claims of faculty workers and people need to be taken seriously by those institutions.
Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Paul E. Johnson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the Union Organizing Committee. Professor Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.
Paul E. Johnson: Thank you so much, Melissa.
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