Faculty Organizing at the University of Pittsburgh: Why a Union, and Why Now?

By Anupama Jain

New People

Oct 22, 2016 – There’s something in the air in Pittsburgh! From Robert Morris to Point Park, Steel City-area faculty are organizing to join the ranks of unionized labor. To some, this might be little surprise: Pittsburgh, is a city with a rich history of labor organizing. At the same time, when one thinks of Pittsburgh labor history they might think of workers smelting steel or armed Pinkertons at the Homestead steel mills. This isn’t entirely off base: in fact, Pittsburgh-area faculty are organizing with the help of the United Steel Workers including faculty at the University of Pittsburgh.

But why unionization, and why now? There are many reasons, but three important ones are: 1) labor contingency and uncertainty worsens learning conditions, 2) teachers and researchers need a stronger voice in negotiations with administration, and 3) academic freedom is an increasingly valuable commodity in an age of emerging social consciousness about inequality.

Focused, appropriately compensated teachers can do their best work,but one class of teachers, adjuncts, teach on a pay-per-class basis. Because the compensation for these classes is very low, adjuncts often teach at several different universities, and many must work other jobs. Moreover, these positions are renewed on an ad hoc basis, often with little lead time before classes start. One colleague of mine would teach two classes at Pitt a semester, a few more at Point Park, and also tended bar in the evening. The only job he could count on having come next semester was the gig tending bar. For many, teaching is a vocation chosen not for monetary benefit, but for the value of teaching itself. But running around town, barely making ends meet is not a recipe for the best teaching. The unpredictability wears both on the teachers —who struggle tol pay their bills—and students, who may be excited about particular instructors and their classes, only to scroll through the catalogue and see no hint of the instructors because they have not yet been renewed. For other, less-contingent faculty, increasing demands for service and research also eat into teaching time. Appropriately compensated faculty are more capable of directing time and effort into education.

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