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Graduate Student Union Considers Agenda


For most unions, getting ready for any round of negotiations with an employer requires research and a complicated juggling act—reconciling the varying, sometimes competing, interests of its membership. Those challenges and more await the newly formed Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) as it prepares for its first round of contract talks with Harvard in the fall. The union’s members are research and teaching assistants from across a University that has long practiced a decentralized, “every tub on its own bottom” approach to governance that some say may complicate the process.

HGSU-UAW members elected 14 students to the inaugural bargaining committee in a late May election marked by very low turnout. Only 10 percent of the nearly 5,000 eligible student-voters cast ballots—a significant decline from the month before, when 70 percent of those eligible participated in the vote to decide whether a union could be formed in the first place.

Since its formation, the bargaining committee has sought input from its membership, using a combination of town-hall-style events locally and a “comprehensive bargaining survey” to reach as many student members as possible. The online survey explores approximately 45 potential bargaining goals, including questions about housing and childcare affordability, protections for international and undocumented students, and rates for health insurance.

“As the newly elected bargaining committee, we are excited to be launching into this new phase of the union campaign,” Ege Yumusak ’16 and Justin Bloesch, committee members from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an emailed statement. “Given the diversity of our committee, wide participation in our union, and examples from other universities, we are confident we can negotiate a strong and fair contract representing the diverse community of student workers at Harvard.”

Graduate students have cited low pay, frustrating working conditions, and lack of affordable housing options and of dental coverage among their chief concerns in the past. (At New York University, the graduate student union recently won free dental coverage for its members.) Any bargaining agenda the union decides upon will likely build off those complaints, and may propose that features negotiated in other on-campus union contracts (such as reduced dependent insurance rates and dental coverage) be extended to members of HGSU-UAW, predicted Jack Trumpbour, Ph.D. ’96, who serves as research director of Harvard’s Labor Worklife Program, a University research center on labor issues. 

Trumpbour, who has spoken at panels hosted by HGSU-UAW and consulted with the union’s leadership in the past, said that identifying elements of other on-campus union contracts that would benefit HGSU-UAW’s membership may help expedite negotiations with Harvard. That, he explained, works in favor of the union as concerns mount that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with a new, strongly pro-business membership appointed by the Trump administration, may overturn its 2016 vote classifying graduate students as employees if another graduate-student unionization case is presented. “There may be a case for working hard to try to get an agreement sooner rather than later, because if you overload too many things on the negotiating table, you do run the risk that it’s harder to get to an agreement,” Trumpbour said. “And the danger for the union is ‘Will the NRLB provide a precedent that allows the University to say well, we don’t even have to talk to you?’”

Paul Curran, Harvard’s director for labor relations, declined to comment on the negotiations and referred to the University’s website about the union. The website states that the parties may discuss issues relating to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment,” including dues, union agency fees, paid leave, and workload requirements. In an accompanying message, Provost Alan Garber writes that “decisions such as who is admitted, how teaching occurs, and who teaches, are academic judgments to be made by the University. We are not under any obligation to negotiate with the United Auto Workers about academic matters.”


The HUCTW Precedent

HGSU-UAW organizers have consulted with other campus unions—among them the Harvard University of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW)—as they prepare their bargaining goals. HUCTW, which is currently bargaining to renew its own contract (set to expire in September) is Harvard’s largest union, representing more than 5,000 support staff members across the University. May marked the thirtieth anniversary of HUCTW’s formation; in 1988, after a bitter and protracted organizing campaign not dissimilar to the graduate-student unionization efforts (and remembered for its slogan, “We Can’t Eat Prestige”), eligible employees voted by a narrow margin to authorize the union’s creation. Bill Jaeger, HUCTW’s executive director, likened many of the challenges his union faced in its infancy to the projects HGSU-UAW must tackle now.

“In a lot of ways, the newly formed union has some structural similarities to ours, and will probably end up facing some of the same challenges because of scope and size,” Jaeger said. “The University as an employer and as an organization is both really big and really decentralized, and both those things matter a lot. It can be really hard to agree on standards that will apply fairly across a lot of different sections of the University that might have really different operational circumstances. There’s not a lot of things that have to really get worked out in detail across the whole University.” 

Organizers in the bid to form a union for support staff—a push led mostly by women—had had little official contact with administrators before the first round of negotiations, a symptom of the tense relationship Jaeger said reflected the University’s extensive anti-union campaign during the battle for recognition. “There was no familiarity, no relationship at all.”

He suggested that some of the “human connections which could allow people across organizational lines” to collaborate most effectively have not yet been established in the case of HGSU-UAW, either: if these people “have met each other, it was in an oppositional situation, in a government hearing or in an arranged meeting that everyone had low expectations about, or took part in for a symbolic reason,” he explained. He predicted that in addition to reaching a contract agreement, HGSU-UAW organizers will be eager to establish a rapport between union leaders and Harvard administrators for future talks, as well as a structure for how interactions between the two parties should occur, because “Relationships between humans are a big part of what happens between Harvard and any union.” 

Jaeger said HGSU-UAW will also need to decide whether to push for a standardized pay schedule across its membership, which ranges from graduate-student research assistants to undergraduate teaching assistants. When HUCTW began, support-staff members at Harvard had a pay program that set standards for wages but “fell short,” Jaeger said. “At least it was one unified pay program, so we had a pretty clear sense of what we were trying to improve upon.”

Though the two unions are similar in the breadth of their membership, HGSU-UAW faces a unique problem in that its members are students who spend a relatively short period of time at Harvard—sometimes as little as two or three years, depending on the length of their degree programs. Jaeger warned that this “natural cycle” of arriving and departing students may make it more difficult to sustain continuity and may complicate the union’s efforts to marshal support among those of its members who voted against forming the union in April’s election.

Trumpbour emphasized that union organizers should work quickly to quell any residual animus from the election results. “It’s one thing when you’re campaigning. Then you actually have to do governing,” he said. The union’s leaders “are representing a lot of different units, so they’ve got to figure out what each of these different parts of the University need.” Given the varying levels of support for the union—The Harvard Crimson’s exit polling showed students in the sciences were less likely to favor unionization—Trumpbour continued, “the important thing for the union really get in there and listen and be engaged with those places.”

In HUCTW’s case, it took time and “some building of record” to convince those who’d voted against the union of the benefits of collective bargaining, Jaeger said. “Listening will help with some of that,” he added, “and I think in other cases it’s probably going to take a successful contract or two and an opportunity to see the union working as a union and doing the good things a union can do over the next few years.”

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