Are Graduate Students Employees?

Graduate students seek to form a labor union.

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Harvard faculty and staff members have access to child-care subsidies worth thousands of dollars per year, while graduate-student parents get none. Harvard’s employees enjoy dental care generously subsidized by the University, but grad students must pay the full cost of their own. These are some of the concerns that graduate students working to form a labor union hope to address through collective bargaining with the University.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled in previous cases that graduate students aren’t entitled to collective bargaining rights, but students and administrators across the nation are waiting on an NLRB decision that could soon reverse that position, forcing Harvard and other private institutions to recognize graduate student labor unions. Whatever the outcome of that case, organizers in the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) plan to continue mobilizing support among their peers and applying pressure on the University to bargain collectively with grad students engaged in teaching and research.

Harvard, like other institutions, continues to oppose student unionization. The NLRB’s decision hinges on whether graduate students should be considered employees, or—as universities assert—students who complete teaching appointments as part of their academic training.      

The Case for Organizing

hgsu began collecting student signatures in favor of unionizing this past fall, following similar movements at Yale and other peer universities. It officially partnered with the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents graduate-student unions at Columbia and New York University, in September. Organizers say the campaign for union representation is about gaining a voice in decisions that affect them, more than about any specific grievance. “We feel like we are workers—we provide a lot of work for the University through research and teaching,” said HGSU-UAW organizer Sam Klug, a Ph.D. candidate in history. “Right now, decisions about the conditions of that are made unilaterally by Harvard.”

But students have much to say about working conditions, too. In some departments, for example, students receive no more compensation for serving as head teaching fellow for a large course than for simply teaching a section in the course. Under those circumstances, there is little incentive for students to take on an often very demanding role, said Nancy Khalil, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. But, she added, “If it’s a faculty member you can’t say no to, what do you do in that situation? With a union, we can start to bargain around these issues.”

Klug said HGSU-UAW volunteers gathered hundreds of pro-unionization signatures weekly during the fall, but he did not provide specific numbers. He declined to comment on whether the union plans to expand its campaign tactics this semester, but stressed that organizers will continue gathering student signatures and hope the University will voluntarily recognize the union.

Khalil said a majority of grad students from Harvard's schools have signed cards in favor of unionizing. It's not yet clear, though, which graduate programs would be included in a bargaining unit. Signatories include students engaged in teaching and research across various degree programs, including not just doctoral candidates, but also master’s candidates and other degree-seekers.

Not all students have embraced the call to unionize. Jae Hyeon Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in physics, called into doubt the union’s claims and campaign strategy in a paper he presented at a Graduate Student Council meeting in October. “The HGSU-UAW has been waging a fast and aggressive campaign to achieve their goals. … I believe there are still many unanswered questions and unvalidated assumptions about the proposed student union,” he wrote, questioning the union’s ability to improve conditions for students. A union may not be able to realize better annual pay increases than students receive now, he wrote, because a portion of members’ earnings would be paid as union dues.

Institutional Opposition 

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) itself opposes the bid to unionize. “The one-size-fits-all approach that often is associated with unions would be a challenge here because there are so many different programs,” said GSAS dean for administration and finance Allen Aloise, Ph.D. ’04 (to whom this story's questions concerning unionization, initially addressed to GSAS dean Xiao-Li Meng, were referred). “We think our graduate students are very well supported and have a strong set of resources and benefits available to them,” he added, cautioning students to think critically about the union’s ability to deliver on its promises. President Drew Faust also has been outspoken against student unionization, saying that “it changes a mentoring relationship between faculty and students into a labor relationship,” echoing the arguments other universities have used. 

In October, the administration created a stir when it distributed guidelines for faculty and staff members to use in discussing student unionization. The guide, Aloise said was intended to promote open dialogue about the union. But many students—and observers in the media—perceived it to be one-sided. It instructed faculty not to threaten or interrogate students who supported the union, and to “explain the disadvantages of union membership” and “correct inaccurate or misleading union statements and campaign materials.” In response to the guidelines, HGSU-UAW has asked professors to sign a neutrality statement. “The question of whether graduate students or any workers join a union should be left up to them,” Klug said. “It’s disappointing to me to see the University was trying to influence that process.”

Student Organizing in National Context… 

Organizers link the battle over graduate student unionization to a national crisis in higher education—including student indebtedness and universities’ reliance on contingent faculty and students for teaching. In its earlier decisions on graduate student workers, the NLRB has sided with the reasoning of universities. In a 2004 decision involving grad students at Brown, the board wrote that teaching appointments are part of students’ academic programs, and thus they do not have employee status that would entitle them to collective-bargaining rights. Last year, the NLRB agreed to reconsider that position in separate cases involving unionization bids from students at Columbia and the New School. Today’s board is considered friendlier to labor than it was under President George W. Bush a decade ago, and is widely thought likely to reverse its 2004 decision. The board invited amicus briefs on the case last month.

New York University is the only private institution in the United States to voluntarily recognize a graduate-student labor union. Graduate-student unions at public institutions, which are governed by state labor laws, not the NLRB, are more numerous: 31 are recognized, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. 

HGSU-UAW members say that their academic relationship with the University is not mutually exclusive of a labor relationship—and that in reality, they already have one. “I have a great relationship with my professors. At the same time, I can be doing work for them....There’s no contradiction between being a student and being a worker,” Klug said. “I don’t think the administration’s position that [union membership] would somehow fundamentally alter that relationship is right.”

A 2013 Cornell paper aiming to test the effects graduate student unionization did not find evidence that unions undermine the student-faculty relationship or diminish academic freedom. It concludes that “potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.”

…and at Harvard

Given the distribution of student unions to date, research on their effects draws only on data from public schools, which may not be readily comparable to the experience at Harvard. Conditions for grad students at Harvard differ in many respects from those at public institutions, Aloise pointed out. The University provides Ph.D. candidates a full tuition subsidy and health insurance for five years, worth more than $46,000 during the 2015-16 academic year. Students’ living stipends for the academic year and summer—typically totaling about $35,000 for students in the sciences and $32,000 in the humanities and social sciences—are more generous than those offered at most universities. Stipends will increase by 3 percent this fall, consistent with their rate of increase for the last five years. Grad students also are entitled to paid time off after the birth of a child, equal to six weeks’ pay for a regular teaching load, or $3,132. The University introduced the benefit in 2013, after students voiced their need for it, Aloise said. Last year, GSAS paid new parents $155,000 through the program in all.

HGSU-UAW member Khalil believes Harvard's accommodations for parents lag what they could be. In December, she co-authored an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson about the challenges of raising children as a graduate student. The cost of day care alone for one child in Cambridge consumes the majority of a grad student’s stipend—if she can find a spot in one of Harvard’s oversubscribed daycare facilities. “It was harder for me to find childcare for my son than it was for me to get into Harvard,” she said. The University ended a pilot program that had provided childcare subsidies to grad students in 2010, but Aloise said the administration is aware of the challenge and is weighing potential solutions: “It’s being very actively looked at.” 

Aloise noted that graduate students receive University health insurance for their first five years (the average time to complete a doctoral degree). In fact, typical time to completion varies across departments. “The average time to degree in history—and it’s printed on the department website—is seven years,” Klug said. Meanwhile, dental and vision insurance aren’t subsidized for graduate students, as they are for faculty and staff members. The University offers dental insurance that grad students may optionally purchase for $469 per year for an individual, or about $39 monthly. By comparison, the dental plan offered to members of the Harvard Union of Technical and Clerical Workers, which includes librarians and information technology workers, costs $16.52 per month pre-tax. For non-union faculty and staff, the rate is $18.04. GSAS, Aloise said, is actively exploring ways to assist students with the cost of dental care.

Last month, GSAS announced that, beginning this fall, it would offer bus and subway passes to students at a 50 percent discount, duplicating the benefit that is provided to faculty and staff members. Grad students currently receive an 11 percent discount. HGSU-UAW welcomed the change on its Facebook page as a response to its organizing. When asked whether the union’s organizing has prompted the improvements in benefits, Aloise said, “It hasn't.” GSAS, he said, has long had a record of improving its policies in response to students’ needs.

But student activists continue to view union organizing as an important way to influence Harvard, and more broadly to change the relationship between universities and the students whose work they rely on. “For me, a lot of it had to do with being part of what’s really a national effort on behalf of a number of different schools to do this,” Klug said. “It’s a really important way to not just work on our own behalf as workers, but also to work for a vision of a better university.”  

Read more articles by Marina N. Bolotnikova

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