COVID-19 and the Graduate Student Union

“When times are tough, there comes to be this real question of who is forced to bear the cost.”  

May 1 marked two years since the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) was certified after Harvard graduate students voted to unionize. It was also the union’s most recent bargaining session with the University with a federal mediator, in what has proven to be a long (now nearly two full academic years and counting) and arduous negotiation process. The next bargaining session takes place May 21. Harvard and the union have always been at odds on HGSU-UAW’s core issues: pay, healthcare benefits, and a neutral/third-party process for investigating sexual harassment. As COVID-19 and the ensuing financial crisis have dramatically altered Harvard’s priorities, graduate students, who do much of the University’s teaching labor that now must be performed remotely, have seen their bargaining priorities change, too. 

Harvard proposed at the May 1 bargaining session to pass a one-year contract agreement (as opposed to the multi-year agreement that is typical of union contracts), given the University’s uncertain financial outlook—and uncertainties about how instruction will take place in the fall—an idea that the union is “carefully considering,” says bargaining committee member Rachel Sandalow-Ash ’15, J.D. ’20. “We understand that these are really uncertain times. And these are really uncertain and scary times for student workers, too,” she says. “And I think that when times are tough, there comes to be this real question of who is forced to bear the cost.”  

In April, after many graduate students reported that adjusting to remote teaching has required an immense amount of work, Harvard and the union agreed on workload limits that would cap average weekly work time at 20 hours and ensure students are paid for all hours worked. The University has also temporarily waived limits on specialist and mental health visits in students’ health plans. 

At a late April news conference, graduate-student workers from across Harvard’s schools talked about how the pandemic has transformed their work, from having to figure out how to move course curricula online to significant disruptions to their research agendas. (Research in campus laboratories, libraries, and collections has been halted, as has travel.) Many students worry that their research has been stalled without a guarantee of extended funding from the University should they need more time to complete their degrees.  

“We’re working around the clock on a whole slew of COVID-related topics,” said Nishant Kishore, a third-year Ph.D. student at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at the conference. “Grad student labor has always been and will continue to be central to the production and dissemination of knowledge that will help us collectively deal with this crisis. And grad student workers need protections that would come with a fair contract to sustain our ability to contribute to ongoing efforts to better understand and combat the spread of COVID-19.” 

“A number of [research] groups in physics and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have turned their focus to COVID-19-related work,” said Maya Anjur-Dietrich, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in applied physics, at the conference. “We’re really proud of people that are stepping up and helping…deal with evolving challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it's also true that many of us had to stop doing our typical research either because we've had to leave campus or because being experimental scientists, we’re unable to access lab facilities and other required equipment. People are worried about what this means for funding, whether that has a set expiration date, whether they'll be able to continue to be funded for next year or the year after.” She adds, “There’s a huge amount of my dissertation that’s just not possible to do remotely.” 

In response to these concerns, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) dean Emma Dench announced an “emergency support initiative” earlier this month that would allow students whose work has been disrupted by the pandemic to apply for lost-time funding, summer funding, and other types of support. It also creates one-year fellowships for students graduating in May or November 2020 who don’t have a job lined up or whose employment has been delayed. The initiative is supportive by an anonymous donor, and it’s not clear how much total funding is available. “GSAS is working with our University partners to evaluate additional categories of need to determine the next phase of support so that we may expand the program,” Dench wrote in a May 8 email to students. 

Union organizers view the emergency support initiative as evidence of the success of their efforts, but also express concern that it doesn’t do enough. Prior to the initiative announcement, HGSU-UAW and the GSAS Student Council had called for a “bridge year” that would guarantee students an additional year of funding for their research. “By organizing and [applying] pressure on the administration, we were able to obtain some financial support for students who have been affected,” says fourth-year history of science Ph.D. student Erik Baker. He calls what’s been put forward “a promising framework,” but adds: “What needs to happen now is we need to get the outstanding questions resolved so that we know that everyone whose lives and research have been disrupted are going to be supported financially.” Many tenure-track faculty members have been offered extensions to their tenure clocks because of the pandemic, he points out, while graduate students haven’t been granted such automatic extensions and it isn’t clear whether all students who apply for emergency funding will receive it. “If they’re doing that for tenure-track faculty,” he says, “then grad students also deserve to have that kind of support, where we also get a guarantee of financial security to help make up for the lost time and tremendous disruption to research,” before facing dissertation-completion deadlines or entering the job market.    

In the contract bargaining, Harvard is offering HGSU-UAW 2.8 percent pay raises for fiscal year 2021 (non-union University employees are under a salary freeze) and, for non-salaried hourly workers, a minimum wage of $16 per hour ($17 per hour for instructional workers). The union has long asked that healthcare coverage for spouses and children to be included in graduate students’ health plans, as well as dental care, which is not currently provided to students. Harvard has offered funding pools that students could draw from to defray the costs of these expenses: $325,000 for dependent health care; $125,000 each for dental care and medical co-pays; and $350,000 for childcare. HGSU-UAW has long pushed against the funding pools, calling instead for guaranteed coverage for everyone, but it now appears prepared to accept a compromised funding model in what will effectively be an emergency contract. “We know that right now, Harvard isn’t very enthusiastic about the idea of spending any money on anything,” Baker says. “If it turns out that the only way that Harvard will be able to turn over money that will ultimately go to student parents…is by creating pools, then that’s of course something that we would have to consider seriously.” 

Under Harvard’s proposal, Sandalow-Ash points out, healthcare-funding pools would also only be accessible to salaried student workers—meaning mostly Ph.D. students. “Most student workers at places like the Law School are hourly,” she says. “People at the Law School take out an incredible amount of student loans. And that debt burden is something that we all feel each and every day. One of the reasons that we've been fighting for fair pay at the Law School and for access to certain benefits is to ease that debt burden.”   

Across the board, graduate students stress that COVID-19 has radically changed teaching workloads at a time when workers face more uncertainty—in terms of health, financially, and otherwise—than ever. “Technologically speaking, a lot of professors don’t quite have the digital literacy that the younger generation [does], and what that means is a lot of coordination and a lot of just basic technical questions fall on our shoulders,” says third-year history Ph.D. student Nathan Grau. As Harvard plans the fall semester, with a strong possibility that classes will continue to take place online, promptly signing a contract with a workload provision is all the more important, says fourth-year economics Ph.D. student Justin Bloesch: “The biggest concern, I think, would be that the workload expectations could be excessive in a period where there isn't precedent about what workload should be.” 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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