The Cathedral of Learning is easily the most recognizable building on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus: a tiered skyscraper, forty-two stories tall, built of steel and limestone. The building was constructed in 1926, but it’s designed to look much older, like a gothic cathedral — something that has stood for centuries. Tall, old, venerable. It’s a symbol of the stability and eternality that we all like to believe our institutions possess. 

The great irony, of course, is the lack of stability that so many academic workers face. 

In the span of my five years at Pitt, I’ve had to re-apply for my job or be re-hired onto a new contract a total of seven times. This past spring, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, my contract expired. Bemoaning the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic, Pitt’s administration implemented a hiring freeze — though this didn’t affect the hiring of a new senior vice chancellor with a $1.4 million salary. Along with countless other non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty, I was in the position, once again, of knowing that my time in academia had likely come to an end. (I was lucky enough to be given a half-course a week after the fall semester had already begun, so I’m still clinging on by the skin of my teeth.)

This sort of precarity is the daily reality for the vast majority of academic workers. I won’t belabor the point. The plight of the adjunct is so shamefully familiar that it would seem a cliché if it weren’t also the bedrock upon which the entire industry of higher education is built.

The exploitative nature of academic labor makes organizing at a large university particularly difficult. Universities rely overwhelmingly on temporary workers and short-term contract labor. Across all of Pitt’s campuses, the ratio of non-tenured to tenured faculty is something in the ballpark of 70-30, a standard ratio across the academy. Most adjuncts at Pitt — even the ones who have been around for ten or fifteen or twenty years — work on semester-by-semester contracts, and most other non-tenure-stream faculty work on one-year or three-year contracts. All of that turnover is very purposefully built into the system. NTS contracts are cheap labor.

And all of that turnover means that the bargaining unit is constantly mutating, with new people added and subtracted every three months. It means that many of the strong supporters of the union, like me, are steadily phased out. It also means that the most vulnerable workers — those who are most in need of a union — are difficult to rally: they might come and go in the time it takes organizers to even realize that they’re a part of the bargaining unit. As if a constantly mutating bargaining unit isn’t enough, all of these challenges also play right into one of the most common weapons that union-busting employers have in their arsenal: delay. 

Pitt is a partially publicly-funded school, which means the folks in charge need to be incredibly sensitive when it comes to the university’s public image. And Pittsburgh is a union town, the home of the United Steelworkers and the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892, where nine striking steelworkers were murdered by Henry Clay Frick’s Pinkertons. There are still plenty of Pittsburghers who remember the battles that the steel unions fought when all of the mills closed back in the 1980s, sending the city into a long economic decline that it’s only recently recovered from. Organized labor is in the city’s blood. The administration at Pitt knows better than to take an explicitly aggressive position toward the union. In public, administrators maintain “neutrality” in regards to the union. But behind closed doors, they’ve done everything they can to delay the legal processes leading up to a union election.

When we filed our authorization cards with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), the university was asked to turn over a list of all of the faculty so that the PLRB could match the names against the signatures on our cards and verify that we’d reached the necessary threshold (30 percent of the total bargaining unit) to trigger an election. As our student newspaper reported, the list that the university turned over was wildly inflated: the administration (or perhaps Ballard Spahr, the law firm they’ve already paid more than a million dollars to combat the union) packed in hundreds of people who were obviously not faculty: people in administrative positions, graduate TAs, undergrads who had jobs grading tests, adjuncts who hadn’t taught at the university in more than four years, retired faculty, and — believe it or not — even a few former faculty who were deceased. 

It was clear that Pitt administrators either didn’t know how many faculty they actually employed (sadly, this is not beyond the realm of possibility), or, more likely, that they were purposefully trying to inflate the bargaining unit in order to dilute the percentage of authorization card signatures we’d gathered in order to postpone an election. If the latter was their goal, they were successful: we’re now approaching two years since we filed our authorization cards, and we still haven’t had an election. Those few hundred names that the administration added to its list forced the PLRB to undergo multiple hearings to determine who qualified as “faculty” and what the actual size of our bargaining unit ought to be. To slow things down even further, the administration has appealed nearly every decision that’s been made in the union’s favor. Looking back, those few hundred extra names set our campaign back a full nineteen months. 

A delayed election dampens union momentum and leaves organizers in a sort of stasis, just spinning our wheels and trying to keep folks engaged while we await the next PLRB decision. (You wouldn’t believe the number of faculty I’ve talked to who, when I mention the union campaign, say, “Oh, that’s still happening?”) We do everything we can to keep our members engaged: we have regular meetings and happy hour events, and we’ve launched multiple petitions to organize faculty around various issues. But many of us have been organizing the campaign for almost six years now, and it’s easy to feel exhausted by how slowly the administration is dragging its feet.

Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. In July, the PLRB ruled that we had, in fact, reached the necessary 30 percent threshold of signatures, and it looks like we’re finally going to have our election. 

From an organizing standpoint, I try to keep in mind the fact that, if the administration’s only tactic is delay, then all we have to do is outlast them. We will have a union if we work for it, and nothing proves this more than our recent PLRB decision. The constant turnover in our bargaining unit means that momentum is difficult to maintain — especially now that the pandemic has forced us to organize exclusively over phone, email, and Zoom calls. But, as cynical as it may sound, all of that turnover also means that there is a near endless wellspring of support. We’ve always known that the university is shooting itself in the foot by relying so endlessly on cheap, exploited labor; they are literally handing us a constantly regenerating list of workers whose material conditions are utterly begging for a union. Administrators simply can’t message their way out of the fact that the workers they rely on are being endlessly abused. (This is true even in a bargaining unit the size of ours: the consequences of the university’s reliance on cheap adjunct labor are felt all the way up through the tenured ranks. For many tenure-track faculty, the ever-increasing reliance on NTS labor leads to heavier committee assignments and increased administrative duties.)

There is another silver lining in all of this delay: it provides our campaign with more time to organize. This might not seem very important in the short term — if our goal is to form a union, all we need to do is win an election, right? But the fact is that democracy will only thrive if it is an ongoing practice, something that its members are constantly engaged with rather than something they show up for once. Even after an election, we will still have to bargain a contract. And even after we’ve bargained a contract, we’ll need to handle grievances and ensure that the contract is upheld. And then we’ll need to bargain another contract, and another. We’re not organizing just toward the election: we’re building organizing into our everyday work. An effective union is a democracy and, even after an election is won, it will still require continuous organizing if it is to function effectively.

Yes, six years is a long time to be organizing, but we should all be so lucky. I can only hope that that faculty at Pitt will continue organizing for years into the future. In this sense, the administration’s delay tactics are perhaps a blessing in disguise: we are given more time to build our infrastructure, to develop leadership within our faculty, and to strengthen our support across the bargaining unit. It’s more time for us to grow our collective vision. It’s more time for us to foster solidarity. It’s more time for us to learn how to act like a union.

 

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