PLRB Officer Orders New Vote for Pitt Grad Employee Union

Contact: R.J. Hufnagel, (412) 562-2450,

A Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) official has ordered a new union election for graduate student employees at the University of Pittsburgh, ruling that the university committed unfair labor practices in its effort to affect the outcome of the graduate students’ vote in April to join the Academic Workers Association of the United Steelworkers (USW).

In his ruling, Hearing Examiner Stephen Helmerich said that Pitt committed “coercive acts” in order to convince graduates to vote against the union, and that those acts “potentially affected a large enough pool of eligible voters for the affect on the election to be manifest due to the extreme narrowness of the result.”

The ruling stated that Pitt’s anti-union actions included intimidation and misinformation, including creating the impression through emails that it was keeping specific track of who voted, and spreading false information about the subjects over which a potential union could bargain. In addition to ordering a new election, Helmerich ruled that the university must publicly share the decision regarding its violations.

“Sadly, the university has done everything it could since day one to stand in the way of its own graduate students having a voice, including engaging in unlawful conduct,” said USW International President Thomas M. Conway.

“This time around, Pitt must allow these workers to exercise their rights under the law and allow the democratic process to proceed without obstruction,” he said.

Pitt grad employees filed for a union election in December 2017, seeking a voice in decisions that affect their working conditions, as well as greater transparency and increased protections against discrimination and harassment.

The April 2019 election followed an extensive anti-union campaign by the university, which included paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ballard Spahr, a Philadelphia-based law firm that specializes in “union avoidance.” The final tally showed 675 workers voting for the union and 712 no votes.

“Graduate students have known for a long time that we needed to join together in a union,” said Olivia Enders, a graduate student employee in the Department of Instruction and Learning in Pitt’s School of Education. “The recent unexpected increase in the already steep health care costs for our families is just one more example of our need for a collective voice. We hope Pitt learns from this situation and lets us exercise that voice without more illegal interference.”

The Academic Workers Association is part of the USW, which represents 850,000 workers in North America employed in many industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil, the service and public sectors and higher education.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-2446

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222