Office of the Provost

Guidance for Faculty and Staff on Talking with Graduate Students about a Union

Many faculty and staff members have questions about unionization and have asked what they can do and say about the on-going graduate student organizing effort. A general description of the unionization process is available at http://gradstudentunionization.pitt.edu/union-basics. Note that different unionization efforts are governed by different rules and laws. Unionization efforts at publically-supported Universities in Pennsylvania are governed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

We divide this guidance into information about what is legally impermissible, followed by some examples of ways in which faculty and staff are allowed to engage with students in discussions of unionization.

Legal Guidance:

If the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board were ever to determine that any graduate students at Pitt are employees who have the right to unionize, faculty would be considered their supervisors under the law. Pennsylvania law prohibits supervisors from making threats or promises to induce someone to support or not to support a union. As employees of the University, faculty are required to follow the law and University policies. We provide the guidance below to help answer questions about what those who might be determined to be supervisors can do and say about unionization efforts based on the existing legal framework. We also use this guidance to provide some recommendations for what faculty and staff might do if they choose to be involved in discussions around unionization.

In the context of this campaign, legal precedent means that faculty and staff (who would be considered managers or supervisors of graduate students) cannot:

  • Threaten:Do not do or say anything that threatens harm (economic, academic, or other) if graduate students support a union or choose not to.
  • Interrogate: Do not ask graduate students whether they support the union. Students are free to share their views with you voluntarily, and you can share yours, but you should not ask them.
  • Promise: Do not promise any benefit or improvement to graduate students for supporting or opposing a union.
  • Spy: Do not spy on union activities or do anything that gives the appearance that you are trying to conduct surveillance on organizing activities.

Note that none of these legal rules restrict your ability to talk to students about their academic performance, their assistantships, or other student-related interactions which are not linked to the student's potential support for unionization efforts.

Examples of permissible behavior:

Outside of the legally prohibited activities described above, you are free to discuss unionization with graduate students. You can also discuss your opinion and experiences with a union if you wish, including any questions or concerns that you have about what a union may mean for students, for your program, and for graduate education at Pitt.

  • Answer questions raised by your graduate students. For questions you can’t answer, direct students to send questions to gradstudent@pitt.edu.
  • Suggest that graduate students become informed about what a union authorization card is and explain that whether they sign a card is their choice. If they want information on the consequences of signing a card, or what happens if they change their mind, refer them to http://gradstudentunionization.pitt.edu/union-basics or gradstudent@pitt.edu.
  • Encourage graduate students to be informed about everything a union might mean for them. Unionization is a consequential decision, one that will impact both current and future generations of University graduate students.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with your graduate students so they can come to you when they have questions or concerns. When students raise concerns, address them or share them with someone who can. Note: you may not be able to address and solve every issue raised by a student, but we take their concerns seriously and we want to make sure that they know it. There are resources for graduate students (http://gradstudentunionization.pitt.edu/graduate-student-resources) that answer many common questions about assistantships and associated support.
  • Give examples of things the University has done to address graduate students' concerns or point out issues that still need work.
  • Remind students of avenues that are available to graduate students to have their voices heard by speaking to faculty, their program leadership, graduate student governance committees, and the Graduate and Professional Student Government.
  • Talk about what you value in your relationship with your graduate students.
  • Explain that a union cannot guarantee students an increase in stipend or any other change. Everything is subject to negotiations and nothing is guaranteed.

In all of your conversations, it is important to be respectful of graduate students’ concerns. Unionization is a complex process with many implications for current and future students and also for the University. These discussions are an opportunity to provide an example of how reasoned, civil discourse can occur.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Is there a clear distinction between sharing concerns which faculty may have about the impact of a graduate union and threatening students?

A: A faculty mentor of a graduate student sharing their thoughts on how a graduate student union could change the student's academic experience and their mentoring relationship is permissible, and faculty are welcome share their views if they feel comfortable doing so. This is not considered threatening under the law; rather, it is consistent with the free exchange of ideas on this issue, which the University welcomes. A threat, on the other hand, would be something like a faculty member telling a graduate student that they will not include them on a grant if the student supports the union. Such a threat would be inappropriate and unacceptable.

Q: What kinds of things can faculty say and not say?

A: The law prohibits making promises of a benefit if someone chooses to support or not to support a union. A promise in this context is a statement that ties a positive action to a student’s taking a particular position on the union. However, something like expressing confidence in a student's future success would not be considered a prohibited promise, nor would it reasonably be considered a promise at all. Similarly, telling a student you plan to include then on a grant if funding is received is acceptable, so long as the statement is not tied to the student’s position on the union.

In addition, faculty are not prohibited from sharing concerns with students about their academic performance or letting them know when improvement is needed. Faculty acting in their roles as mentors and teachers are not making threats. A statement becomes a prohibited threat if it ties negative action to a student’s support for the union.

If you have questions, contact gradstudent@pitt.edu.