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Harvard Graduate Students Are Getting Ready to Strike

11.12.19

Union protesters march at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

Graduate student union protesters, May 2019

Photograph by Michael Dwyer/Associated Press


Graduate student union protesters, May 2019

Photograph by Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Last week, the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) announced that it would strike if it doesn’t come to a contract agreement with Harvard by December 3, the last day of classes this semester before reading period. The union had announced its willingness to strike in a July open letter to University president Lawrence S. Bacow, saying that it intended to hold a strike-authorization vote “if the Harvard administration’s bargaining team continues to put forward untenable positions for negotiation and prevents us from attaining a fair contract that responds to core issues of our campaign.” Last month, 90 percent of voting members elected to authorize HGSU-UAW’s bargaining committee to call a strike if they deemed it necessary. 

“The administration has 4 weeks to reach an agreement on fair pay, comprehensive & affordable healthcare, and protections against discrimination and harassment, or we will go out on strike,” the 5,000-member union announced November 5. While the union and Harvard have reached a number of important agreements since negotiations began more than a year ago—including a recent agreement on protections for international students—the parties have remained at an impasse on some of HGSU-UAW’s most high-stakes, core demands. 

“We definitely see striking as a last resort, but we’ve run out of alternatives to address some of our core demands,” said Ege Yumusak ’16, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and member of HGSU-UAW’s bargaining committee. 

“We’ve been in negotiations for more than 12 months now, and there was a strong feeling that that’s plenty of time to negotiate a contract,” said bargaining committee member Justin Bloesch, a Ph.D. candidate in economics. 

"HGSU-UAW is making a choice to potentially disrupt the academic work of all Harvard students as they wrap up the semester, which is disappointing,” said University spokesman Jonathan Swain in a statement responding to the strike announcement. “The University continues to approach these negotiations in good faith and feels a strike is unwarranted. We will work across the University to prepare for a strike and make every attempt to reduce any negative impact on students as they are wrapping up the semester's academic work and preparing for and taking their finals.” 

According to the University, Harvard has offered pay raises of 8 percent over three years for salaried students, and 7 percent over three years for teaching fellows. It has also proposed raising minimum hourly pay for all student workers to $15, and $17 for instructional workers. Currently, hourly workers in some cases make substantially less: “There are people on this campus who are making minimum wage,” Yumusak said. (The Harvard Crimson reported earlier this year that research assistants at Harvard Law School got a raise when the Massachusetts minimum wage increased to $12 an hour.)

Student workers’ main concern with respect to pay, Bloesch said, is that it keep up with cost of living. “Two years ago, in response to underperformance of the endowment, stipends were raised 1.5 percent, but Harvard housing was increased by 3 percent,” he said. HGSU-UAW is also seeking an initial raise that’s higher than typical annual inflation raises, Yumusak said, to make up for the cost of union dues that will be deducted from student workers’ pay.  

Another component of the unions fair-pay demand concerns the “top-up” payments graduate students receive as part of their funding packages. When Ph.D. students begin teaching, typically in their third year, a portion of their pay comes from teaching work, but this is not enough to equal the living stipends they had received in their first and second years. The top-up, which amounts to $3,825 per semester this year, makes up the difference. But Harvard considers this money financial aid, not pay, Yumusak said, so it wouldn’t automatically be affected by the pay raises negotiated in the contract. The University is effectively “refusing to negotiate over total compensation,” she said. 

Many other situations arise that complicate top-up pay: in order to get it, students need to teach two sections in a semester. “It’s not unusual for someone to have an outside fellowship and not have a class to teach that semester, but a professor says, ‘Oh, I have a class this semester, could you teach it?’” Bloesch said. In that case, teaching one class would effectively be paid at a lower rate than teaching two, because it doesn’t come with a top-up.  

Benefits such as health-care and medical/family leave represent another sticking point in the negotiations (just as they were during HGSU-UAW’s campaign to form the union). Graduate students don’t automatically receive dental insurance through their health plan, nor are spouses or children covered. “It’s 7,000 to insure a spouse, $4,000 to insure a child,” Bloesch said (for spouses, the number is $7,718).

Thus far, the University has offered the union funding pools that would help cover some of these expenses: a fund of $250,000 per year to defray the cost of spousal and child health insurance, $75,000 per year for dental costs, and $250,000 per year for child care. HGSU-UAW has argued the costs of healthcare and child care are too high for these funds to make much difference. Harvard’s dental insurance, for example, costs $558 this year, so $75,000 would be enough to cover premiums for 134 students, or to reduce each graduate student’s annual cost by about $19. 

According to a 2017 survey taken by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Student-Parents Association, about six out of 100 students are parents, and there were 367 children of GSAS parents. HGSU-UAW estimates there are 400 children of student-worker parents in formulating its proposals, Bloesch said. Currently, Ph.D. students can take 12 weeks of leave and receive a stipend of $6,646 after having a child. “What we’ve heard from members is that it’s just not enough to actually take leave,” Bloesch said. “Most students I’ve talked to who don’t have the support of a full-time working partner or parents choose to continue to teach through the semester because they need the money.” 

The union’s third major bargaining demand, on which it has made little progress with the University, hinges on the handling of sexual-harassment and discrimination cases. HGSU-UAW has proposed an independent, third-party arbitration process, similar to how other violations of the contract would be handled, while the Harvard wants to investigate these cases through its Title IX Office and Office of Dispute Resolution, where University sexual-harassment cases are usually handled. 

Discrimination and harassment became a core focus for HGSU-UAW in spring 2018, Yumusak said, after the case of former professor Jorge Domínguez came to light. “Eighteen women were harassed over three decades with no institutional accountability whatsoever,” she said. “Students have lost trust in the institution’s ability to” address these cases. 

Yumusak cited other universities where neutral grievance procedures have effectively addressed sexual harassment, as well as neutral procedures that are already part of Harvard’s contracts with other unions. In the case of graduate students, she said, “They want to preserve absolute power over determining who is a harasser, who has committed discrimination…The fox is guarding the henhouse. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”    

“The union’s proposal would carve out student workers as having a separate process from all other students, which we do not believe meets the requirements of current or proposed federal Title IX regulations,” Swain’s statement said. “The University has proposed significant opportunities for HGSU-UAW members to have an ongoing role in making recommendations on how to strengthen policies and processes aimed at preventing and addressing harassment and discrimination.” At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on November 5, Provost Alan Garber, who is the University lead for the negotiations, acknowledged the “heartfelt” student concerns about such abuses, and said that no member of the community could fail to be affected by the stories about harassment and assault that had been brought forward during interactions with the union. The cases were revealing,  he said, and valuable for the University to learn about. But, he said, the University disagrees on the HGSU-UAW’s proposed remedies. 

The union’s insistence on an independent investigation process “is really important,” Bloesch said, “because often our advisers and supervisors hold the keys to our entire careers. A single letter of recommendation or any sort of disciplining can totally end someone’s academic career.” Relying on an internal process “where someone who’s a Harvard employee makes a final decision,” he continued, is not enough when the stakes are so high. 

Yumusak stressed that the union’s proposed independent grievance procedure would not just be for sexual-harassment and gender-based discrimination cases. They would cover categories like racial and pregnancy discrimination: “These are very important forms of discrimination that occur in academic workplaces that do not currently have a grievance procedure.” 

 

Since the spring of 2018, when about 56 percent of graduate students voted to form a union, student worker sentiment has shifted palpably. During that election, Bloesch says, the issues at stake were “a little abstract”; not all students knew what policy changes and other consequences would result from forming a union. Now, union members have a clearer sense of what the negotiations mean for them. “People who may have been on the fence or not supportive of the union before have been surprised about the University not moving,” Bloesch says. “The degree to which the University has not responded, particularly on the discrimination and harassment issues, I think, has been surprising to some members and has been off-putting.”

This is not entirely surprising. Neither the students nor the University have negotiated these matters before. The HGSU-UAW leaders and negotiators are new to their roles, and Harvard is trying to come to some agreement that will apply to all its schools, with their differing teaching and graduate-student structures. 

HGSU-UAW, of course, wants to reach a contract agreement without striking. Negotiation sessions are scheduled for November 15, 22, and 26. If a strike does take place, the union would pay students $275 per week if the strike has lasted more than eight days and if Harvard withholds pay. 

All this takes place in an uncertain landscape for the rights of student workers. In September, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed a rule that would revoke the right of private university students to form labor unions. The NLRB is currently accepting public comments on the proposal, and Harvard has not indicated whether the rule would affect its negotiations with HGSU-UAW. Asked whether the union is worried about what the rule would mean for Harvard, Bloesch said, “We feel pretty confident that the University is working toward a deal with us.” And whatever the fate of graduate students’ rights under the NLRB, he added, a key lesson of the unionization process has been that student workers can exercise power by withholding their labor: “Really, the power that we have is in the ability to strike.”

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