Could academics at Pitt be the future of a historic steelworkers union?

“If it’s eds and meds in Pittsburgh, then it will be unionized eds and meds in Pittsburgh,” a union leader said.

Forbes Avenue in Oakland on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Forbes Avenue in Oakland on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Following the lead of their peers at institutions of higher learning across the country, graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh are digging in on their efforts to unionize, demanding more leverage and the right to negotiate for better compensation and greater control over their academic affairs.

And while these efforts are relatively new — they officially began in early 2016 — the labor union behind them is not.

The United Steelworkers union (USW), established circa 1942, is currently collecting petition signatures from at least 30 percent of Pitt’s more than 2,000 graduate student workers, indicating they want the union to represent them.

Jeff Cech, a USW representative, tells The Incline that the 30-percent threshold would enable organizers to hold an election determining whether a majority of Pitt grad student workers feels the same way.

“I can tell you we’re well on track to file [for that election] before the end of the fall semester,” Cech said of the petition signatures.

‘Everyone is diversifying’

At first blush, the involvement of a hard-nosed steelworkers’ union in a higher ed attempt to organize workers may seem strange, but if recent changes in the economic landscape are any indication, it’s not.

Nationwide, labor union rolls have declined on the heels of American manufacturing losses, the passage of right-to-work laws allowing employees in some states to opt out of union representation, and a host of other economic and policy shifts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said just 10.7 percent of American workers were members of labor unions in 2016, down from 11.1 percent the previous year and 20.1 percent in 1983.

In response, labor unions have begun looking outward to find new members beyond the traditional confines of blue collar industry. This includes academia, where the United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest labor unions in North America, now represents more than 60,000 workers, many of them graduate workers, i.e. those graduate students also working for schools as researchers, teachers and assistants.

“Everyone is diversifying now,” Guillermo Perez of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) in Pittsburgh said of unions.

“USW represents more health care workers than steelworkers now, and so it’s not at all odd that [it’s] taken up the cause of grad students here in Pittsburgh.”

Perez, who is also affiliated with the USW, said to revive the labor movement, the movement itself must bring more people and occupations into the fold. This includes jobs being created in the service industry and gig economy. It also includes new workers, particularly people of color, immigrants, women and millennials.

“If it’s eds and meds in Pittsburgh, then it will be unionized eds and meds in Pittsburgh,” Perez added of the city’s changing economy.

What’s at stake?

In Pittsburgh, where steelworker numbers have plummeted in recent decades, USW already represents adjunct faculty at Point Park University and Robert Morris University, although they don’t refer to them as adjuncts, believing the word — one meaning non-essential or supplementary — has a marginalizing effect. Instead, they say these workers fill valuable and essential positions within the universities, often for little pay. The efforts to organize graduate workers at Pitt and Penn State have centered, by and large, on the same argument.

At Pitt, graduate stipends range from $7,530 to $10,545 per semester, although a school official told the Post-Gazette that with tuition, health insurance and other support included, the total for an in-state arts and sciences worker is closer to $45,000.

Pitt’s administration told The Incline that graduate student stipends increased 3 percent for the coming academic year and 13.7 percent over the last five years.

Beth Shaaban, a PhD student at Pitt and a member of the pro-union Graduate Student Organizing Committee, argues that it’s still not enough, especially for those graduate workers with families.

“In terms of what we live off of on a daily basis, then that is where the limitations are, and that really runs from $15,000 to $22,000 a year,” said Shaaban, 39. She cited graduate workers at Pitt who “run out of money before the end of the month, are eligible for Medicaid and food stamps, and [who] use the Pitt food bank to make ends meet,” some while simultaneously helping to propel multimillion-dollar research projects at work.

Beyond the issue of compensation, Pitt graduate workers supporting the unionization push say collective bargaining is also about having greater influence over the aspects of student life that impact them or about preventing the benefits they already have from one day being rolled back.

“I have rheumatoid arthritis,” Shaaban explained. “And right now we have good health plans that offer pharmaceutical coverage, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the administration could turn around and say, ‘We’re cutting your health benefits.’ My condition would essentially be disabling without these drugs, and they’re like 30,000 dollars a year.”

‘The education, not the financial support …’

Meanwhile, an open letter issued last month by Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor Patricia Beeson confirms the administration’s wariness of, and opposition to, the union effort.

In it, Beeson writes: “I have serious concerns that a graduate student union would not be in the best interests of either our students or the broader University.”

She goes on to say that while she’s not opposed to labor unions on campus — she cites the presence of many collective bargaining units there already — she feels the “unique relationship” graduate students have with their faculty, departments and schools is less suited to union representation.

“The education, not the financial support, is the goal of graduate study,” Beeson wrote.

It’s a sentiment scoffed at by graduate students like Shaaban, and one expressed by university officials time and again as they face unionization pushes of their own at campuses across the country.

In response to Beeson’s letter, Shaaban wrote one of her own to the student newspaper. It read, in part: “Provost Patricia Beeson makes more than $440,000 per year, and Pitt’s endowment is about $3.6 billion. Yep, with a B. That’s double CMU’s. The administration no longer has any idea what it’s like to live as a grad worker.”

In response to questions from The Incline, the university reiterated many of the provost’s views. Communications manager Anthony Moore wrote in an email:

Other support for those students includes health insurance, career services, subsidized access to public transportation, athletic facilities and other student health services. Pitt does not believe that this financial support transforms graduate students, whose activities are centered around their graduate education, into employees. The concern is that the shared governance model currently in place at Pitt — which allows for both the individual and collective voice of graduate students to be heard — would be adversely impacted by a union. If a union were permitted to represent graduate students, by law, the union would become the sole voice for students on topics deemed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to be covered by collective bargaining.

Is it working?

Another administrative argument seen elsewhere in the country involves the wiggle room, or lack thereof, contained in university coffers.

When unionized graduate workers at NYU, in pushing for defrayment of their Master’s tuition costs, pointed to some $399 million in revenue over expenses made by the school in 2014, an NYU spokesman argued that none of that revenue amounted to spendable income and therefore couldn’t be applied, The Atlantic reported. It should be noted that individual endowments to universities like Pitt can also come with strings attached. Many are also tied up in illiquid investments.

But labor unions say universities and colleges can do far more to improve the lives of their graduate students and workers — and they continue to assert this position in brash campaigns targeting university officials with the same vigor once reserved for unscrupulous factory owners.

Turns out it might be paying off.

In 2000, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee reportedly became the nation’s first officially certified labor union for graduate students, capping a years-long, pro-union effort on campus. It did so with the help of the United Auto Workers, and at one point negotiated a union contract with the school’s administration that saw stipends raised by almost 40 percent, health benefits improved and pay added for graduate assistants working more than 20 hours a week.

In the years that followed, campus organizing efforts continued to explode in the U.S., with about 440,000 faculty and graduate students belonging to collective bargaining units in 2010-2011, up 17 percent from 2005-2006, Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions found.

Now, in Pittsburgh, the USW is hoping for a similar outcome at Pitt, western Pennsylvania’s largest university. Through a vote in favor of collective bargaining, Pitt graduate workers would join those at dozens of U.S. colleges and universities where such unions now exist.

The move would also be a boost for the USW, which is currently spearheading another effort at Pitt to organize some 5,000 tenured, tenure-track and adjunct professors into a separate bargaining unit, the University Times reports. Shaaban is clear, however, that it was Pitt graduate workers who approached USW for representation, not the other way around.

Either way, Perez believes this is the future of labor unions today, and that as a nation’s economy continues to evolve, so must they.

“We think people should be able to make a decent living and provide for their families. We think they should have health insurance and a life outside work, and this new economy is totally failing to provide any of that. And so our solution is to organize, but that’s nothing new, grad students and adjuncts have been organizing efforts around that for some time now.”

He added: “Our position is that anyone who isn’t a boss should have a union.”