The Lead

Trump’s labor board won’t stop Pitt grad students’ union push

By: - October 2, 2019 6:30 am

While the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board is seeking to prevent graduate students from organizing, don’t expect it to impact a restarted union push in Pittsburgh.

The proposed rule, published on Sept. 23, would prevent graduate students at private universities from being covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Passed in 1935, the NLRA gives millions of private sector workers in the U.S. the right to unionize and collectively bargain over wages and working conditions. The law also lays out how unions can be formed.

The board has waffled three times over the last 19 years on the question of whether graduate students can unionize in the first place. 

The NLRB’s most recent decision, under the Obama administration in 2016, gave graduate students at private schools approval to form unions. 

The proposed Trump rule seeks to undo that. 

But it would not affect the organizing efforts of the roughly 1,800 graduate students who teach courses or do research for pay at the University of Pittsburgh, according to an official with the United Steelworkers. 

The union is supporting the organizing drive at the state-related university, which gets an annual appropriation of state dollars approved by the Legislature while also maintaining a private endowment.

Authority to regulate public sector workers is left to state labor boards, according to Mike Duff, a labor law professor at the University of Wyoming.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled earlier this year that Pitt’s graduate students were employees and could unionize. After losing an election in April, the students filed a petition alleging administrative interference in the election.

A PLRB official agreed in a ruling last month and ordered a new election. Pitt has denied any wrong doing.

Frank Snyder, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO — of which the United Steelworkers is a member — told the Capital-Star that he couldn’t comment on whether or not there are unionization pushes percolating at any private universities in Pennsylvania. But he did say he was “quite certain that folks are talking” about the proposed change.

“The case for graduate employees has been tried and tested many years ago,” Snyder said.

Snyder, a member of the United Steelworkers, helped organize the state’s only successful graduate student union, at Temple University, which is also a state-related university. 

Temple’s graduate student union was officially formed in March 2001 after the university tried to claim that graduate students were not employees, much like Pitt.

An attempt by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teachers’ union, to unionize Penn State University’s graduate students in 2018 was unsuccessful.

Union campaigning at the University of Pittsburgh is ongoing, according to The Pitt News, the student newspaper.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.