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Grad Students Call on Harvard to Remain Neutral in Union Bid

4.29.16

Professor of economics Stephen Marglin speaks in favor of student unionization.


Professor of economics Stephen Marglin speaks in favor of student unionization.

Professor emeritus of history John Womack speaks in favor of student unionization. 


Professor emeritus of history John Womack speaks in favor of student unionization. 

Hundreds of graduate students gathered at the Science Center plaza for a “union block party” Thursday afternoon, calling on Harvard to let them form a labor union. The demonstration culminated a year of vocal activism for student unionization at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Dozens of handwritten posters filled the plaza, displaying examples of what students hoped to gain through collective bargaining with the University: “Dental insurance,” many posters read. “Affordable housing.” “Health care for my wife and child.” 

Framing their dispute with the administration (which opposes unionization) as a matter of University neutrality, a group of graduate students delivered a letter from the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) to President Drew Faust’s office urging Harvard not to interfere with students’ decision to form a union. “Out of respect for the important work RAs and TAs provide at Harvard and for the democratic process, we urge the Harvard administration to recognize their right to collective bargaining,” the letter argued. Harvard should “refrain from any legal or other actions that would delay graduate employees’ right to choose collective bargaining.” Signatories included Harvard students, Boston city council president Michelle Wu, Cambridge city councilors, and more than 50 state legislators. 

“Graduate students are engaged, valued, and supported as a critical part of the learning, teaching, and research that occurs at Harvard,” University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven said in a statement Friday. “We will continue to encourage an open, balanced conversation about graduate student unionization. We continue to believe that the relationship between graduate students and a university is fundamentally about education, not employment, and changing that relationship could be damaging and disruptive to graduate education and the graduate student experience.”

The event also celebrated that a majority of graduate students support unionization, a fact verified this week by the neutral American Arbitration Association. Union organizers have solicited student support throughout the year, asking them to sign cards in favor of unionizing. Students engaged in teaching and research from across Harvard’s schools, including GSAS, the medical school, and the school of public health, have signed on to the effort. In the fall, HGSU joined forces with the United Auto Workers, which also represents graduate student unions at Columbia and New York University (NYU). 

Harvard officials oppose unionization, arguing that it would turn students’ academic relationship with the University into a managerial relationship. NYU is the only private university to recognize a graduate student union, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is considering a case that could reverse its current position on student unionization, and force private institutions like Harvard to allow students to organize. The decision hinges on whether graduate students should be considered employees, or students who complete teaching and research appointments as part of their degree programs. Harvard filed an amicus brief in the case favoring the latter interpretation in February. “Both collective bargaining and arbitration are, by their very nature, adversarial,” the brief argues. “They clearly have the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.”

Students from across departments spoke Thursday about working conditions and benefits they hoped to gain through union representation. Two Harvard faculty members, members of the Harvard dining hall workers’ union, Cambridge city council vice mayor Marc McGovern, and state representative Marjorie Decker also spoke in favor of unionization. “Teaching policies are often very non-transparent, and in some cases they aren’t even written down,” said Benjamin Franta, a doctoral candidate in applied physics. When students met with the administration, he said, officials “agreed that this was a problem that should be addressed, but when it came time to actually making the changes, we [were] met with stonewalling.” A union, he said, would give students bargaining power in decisions like these.

Many students reported not being paid on time for their teaching and research appointments. It’s illegal in Massachusetts to pay employees late, but because graduate students’ legal status is ambiguous, they may not be protected by the law. “It plagues GSAS,” said Abigail Weil, a doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures and an HGSU-UAW organizer. “But there’s no one to hold GSAS accountable.” Allen Aloise, GSAS dean for administration and finance, said that “delayed payment for students appointed to teach classes is unacceptable, and we’re working hard to make sure students get these payments on time.” 

Economics professor Stephen Marglin and history professor emeritus John Womack spoke at the event, marking the most vocal public support of student unionization from faculty to date. “The decision on the union is a decision graduate student workers must make for themselves,” Womack said. He called Harvard’s intervention in the process “illegal intimidation,” citing guidelines that GSAS distributed to faculty and staff to use in discussing student unionization.

Marglin said that faculty fear repercussions for publicly supporting the union, and condemned the administration’s position. “Has there ever been an organizing drive in which the bosses didn’t say, ‘We’ll take care of you—we know better’?” he asked.   

Harvard appears no closer to recognizing them, but HGSU-UAW plans to expand its campaign next year, Weil promised, and remains hopeful that the organizers can apply enough pressure on the University to gain recognition. If the NLRB rules in favor of students, as some labor experts predict it’s likely to do, the administration’s position may soon no longer matter. 

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