By Anupama Jain
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.
A second reason for a union is facilitating more equitable negotiations between teachers and universities. The cost of tuition at Pitt has skyrocketed in the last decade, with the in-state tuition at nearly $18,000 for the upcoming year, a roughly $7,000 increase over less than a decade. Declines in state support for the university are not matched by the tuition increases. In 2007 the university was projected to receive roughly $165,593,000 from the state. Today the university receives $147,392,000 from the state. Even accounting for inflation, university revenues have grown in excess of these cuts. Salary rates, however, have stagnated., with many faculty receiving “raises” lower than the rate of inflation. Collective bargaining creates conditions for faculty to ensure that they are paid what they are worth, and that student tuition is going towards research and learning.
A third reason is academic freedom. Academics have a long tradition of exploring ideas in the classroom, and in research, which may ruffle feathers or question norms. While academic freedom has always been valuable, this is increasingly true in a world where faculty strive to live up to their commitments to be ethical, provocative, and responsible thinkers. Good teaching sometimes involves asking hard questions, questions about issues like systemic violence and endemic racism. Such questions may provoke discomfort in students. At the same time, teaching evaluations are increasingly used as criteria for making hiring and retention decisions. When teachers ask difficult—but fair—questions about our world, they need to know that the university’s commitment to terms like “diversity” is more than an empty slogan that will be tossed aside at the first sign of student discomfort..
A union can help with all of these concerns. Unionized professors know they have a job—and eager students—waiting for them next semester. They know that if they put in the extra hours to help out students, this work will be recognized financially by the institution. They know that they can look forward to finally ending their time in barista limbo for the excitement of regular teaching. They can ask important, tough questions of students, and trust that someone will have their back. A student body taught by unionized professors knows that their money is going to those teaching them. A union will make the University of Pittsburgh a better place to learn, work, think, and live.