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Fate of Graduate-Student Union Still Unknown

12.22.16

Photo of polling sign at Phillips Brooks House

A sign directs students to a polling location at Phillips Brooks House. The vote to ratify the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers took place on November 16 and 17.

Photograph by Harvard Magazine/LC


A sign directs students to a polling location at Phillips Brooks House. The vote to ratify the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers took place on November 16 and 17.

Photograph by Harvard Magazine/LC

More than a month after Harvard graduate students (and eligible undergraduates with teaching or research responsibilities) voted on whether to unionize, the election still remains too close to call. 

In an initial vote count Thursday morning, 1,456 students voted “no” to unionizing, and 1,272 voted “yes.” But 314 ballots remained challenged at the time of the count due to questions over voter eligibility. Because the margin in the initial count is smaller than the number of ballots that remain under challenge, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will conduct hearings to determine those voters’ eligibility. 

“While this news is not what we were hoping for today, our work is not over,” the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) wrote in a statement. “From the beginning, we have had concerns about Harvard's eligible voter list, and we are looking into its potential impact on the election results. We will continue to work to make sure that eligible voters who cast ballots subject to challenge have their votes counted.”

The election took place on November 16 and 17. Though the more than 3,000 votes were expected to be counted that week, the process was delayed by deliberations over 1,200 challenged ballots, requiring individial certification of each by graduate-student organizers, Harvard officials, and the NLRB, the agency responsible for conducting and overseeing the election. Many votes were challenged because of mismatches between names printed on the voter lists and on student IDs, or because students voted at a different polling location from the one they were assigned, at Phillips Brooks House, Harvard Business School, or the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. About 300 ballots were challenged on eligibility grounds. Difficulties determining eligibility arise for students, particularly in the sciences, whose stipends may be fully funded by private grants from outside Harvard. The sheer number of challenges itself points to the complexities of labor and funding at a large and relatively decentralized university. 

Since the election, student organizers have worked to resolve as many challenged ballots as possible before conducting a vote count to avoid an outcome that was too close to call. Now, a final election outcome will likely be delayed for months. 

Last week, graduate students at Columbia became the first to vote to unionize (and by an overwhelmingly margin) since the NLRB’s summer decision to grant union rights to student workers. But Columbia quickly filed a challenge to the result earlier this week, alleging that the pro-union students had engaged in voter intimidation. Student organizers at both Columbia and Harvard condemned the move. “Columbia is refusing to respect the democratic process and accept the union’s clear victory,” HGSU-UAW announced on its Facebook page. At Yale, student organizers have taken a department-by-department approach to unionizing, and have filed for elections in several departments; the administration has contested their approach, and the case remains mired in legal disputes at the NLRB. Meanwhile, student workers’ right to unionize could again be overturned by a reconstituted NLRB, once president-elect Donald Trump makes appointments to the board.

“Regardless of the election result, the University remains committed to preserving the academic freedom of our faculty and students, and to the integrity of our teaching and research mission,” University director of labor and employee relations Paul Curran said in a press release. “This election underscores the importance of the University’s commitment to continuing to improve the experience of our students. We want every student to thrive here and to benefit from Harvard’s extraordinary academic opportunities.”

The Route to the Election

Last spring, organizers for HGSU-UAW reported that they had collected signed union-authorization cards from a majority of graduate students; pro-union activities continued throughout the semester, including dissemination of a letter which called for the Harvard administration to not interfere in the union formation process. Throughout their campaign, HGSU activists drew attention to benefits students could hope to gain through collective bargaining with the University—among them better healthcare, improved working conditions, and enhanced family support. 

Graduate students don’t receive dental insurance as part of their Harvard benefits, and students with children report financial hardship purchasing healthcare and childcare for dependents. Students’ annual stipends—in the low $30,000s for the humanities and social sciences, and mid-$30,000s for the sciences—are more generous than those offered by most universities, but still low relative to the high cost of living in metro Boston. Some students also report receiving their paychecks chronically late, a problem that GSAS has acknowledged and pledged to address. The University last year doubled paid time off for new graduate student parents, to 12 weeks, and increased the subsidy for students’ subway passes from 11 percent to 50 percent, the same benefit that Harvard faculty and staff members receive. In its annual report for fiscal year 2016, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) reported that doctoral-student stipends increased by 3 percent for the sixth consecutive year—but local healthcare and housing costs remain among the highest, and most rapidly inflating, in the country.

In August, as the organizing effort continued, the NLRB ruled that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, and thus that they have a federal right to unionize. (Harvard and peer universities had filed briefs urging the agency to rule against student unionization.) The ruling effectively forces private universities to recognize graduate student unions if a majority of students elect to unionize. Bypassing a potentially lengthy litigation process, HGSU-UAW and Harvard agreed on an election process in October.

The Crimson Campaign

At Harvard, both sides of the unionization issue intensified their outreach in the weeks preceding the vote. UAW organizers held a series of information sessions for various graduate and professional schools, undergraduate teaching and research assistants, and individual academic departments, as well as a joint event alongside University administrators on November 2. They also launched a paid advertising campaign on social media, called and texted students eligible to vote, and knocked on dorm doors. 

Meanwhile, an informal opposition group, Against HGSU-UAW, formed on Facebook to coordinate actions like designing and posting fliers. Members also started a blog and circulated an email to fellow students to voice their concerns. (“This is not in any way an organized group,” said its founder, Jae Hyeon Lee, a third-year in the physics department, in November. “It's basically just a Facebook page for people who want to volunteer their time and communicate with each other.”) 

Anti-union students expressed a range of concerns: that a potential union would take dues out of their paychecks; that first-year students who hadn’t yet engaged in paid work for Harvard weren’t eligible to vote, even though they’d be affected by the decision in subsequent years; that a union would interfere with their relationships with advisers; and that their dues payments would support the political activities of UAW nationally. Andrea Kriz, a graduate student in the biological and biomedical sciences program, said in a November interview that she worried a single union couldn’t account for the interests of all the University’s departments, whose students have diverse work and funding structures. She also called union organizers’ tactics overly aggressive: “They haven't really created a good environment for talking about the potential disadvantages, because they way they frame it is, ‘It's us versus them, the Harvard administration is evil, and they're going to take away their stipends unless you join the union.’” 

Harvard officials and many political voices from outside the University have also weighed in. University provost Alan M. Garber, FAS dean Michael D. Smith, and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Xiao-Li Meng all wrote separate emails to the student community raising questions about the size and scope of HGSU-UAW, and how it might change student-teacher relationships. Beyond campus, Boston City Council president Michelle Wu ’07, J.D. ’12, and U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey voiced support for the union. 

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