Academic Workers Rally for Union Recognition

Amid other tough negotiations, Harvard non-tenure-track faculty and staff seek better compensation, workplace protections, and an end to term limits. 

A photo montage of protest signs; one reads, "Workers are Harvard's true endowment."

A week after publicly announcing their intention to form a union, non-tenure-track faculty members held two rallies Tuesday afternoon in Harvard Yard and at the Longwood campus. More than 100 people turned out, and amid chants of “When we fight, we win!” and “Harvard works because we work!” organizers urged attendees to sign union authorization cards, while speakers called for higher wages, better job security, and stronger workplace protections regarding issues like safety and harassment. “We’re fighting for a seat at the table,” Thomas Dichter ’08, a lecturer in the history and literature department and a staff member at Harvard Medical School, told the crowd gathered at Longwood. “We are done with decisions being made over our heads in rooms that we have no access to.”

Harvard declined to comment Wednesday morning. 

Organizers said that Harvard Academic Workers-United Auto Workers (HAW-UAW) would represent up to 6,000 University employees, a group that includes lecturers, preceptors, postdoctoral fellows, instructors, teaching assistants, researchers, and adjunct faculty members. Some of those positions operate on short-term contracts that must be renewed annually; in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), non-tenure-track faculty members can only hold teaching appointments for a maximum of eight years. After that, they are ineligible for renewal, regardless of teaching performance or scholarly achievement. 

This precarity was a central theme in Tuesday’s speeches. Michaela Thompson, an environmental historian and Harvard Extension School instructor, was a preceptor in environmental science and public policy until last June, when she reached the eight-year threshold. “Harvard has called this wheel of disposal a virtuous cycle,” she said to those gathered in Harvard Yard, “while positions sit unfilled and workers are jettisoned.” Even before her term limit was up, she said, her job felt insecure. During her first semester as a preceptor, she broke three ribs and suffered a collapsed lung, “and within a week I was teaching classes via speakerphone, because I was too afraid to take medical leave because I might not be renewed.” 

Yiddish preceptor Sara Feldman spoke of the disruption that term limits can cause for students. “Every time somebody gets pushed out or leaves for a better job, the program has to be rebuilt again,” she said. “There’s no long-term planning or curricular development for Yiddish, because the preceptors all have one foot out the door. Students lose continuity—which, for an endangered language like Yiddish, really matters.” She added, “Our working conditions are their learning conditions, and when non-tenured faculty lose their jobs, students lose the faculty who know them best.” (Later, one of Feldman’s students, College senior Ezra Lebovitz, rose to the microphone: “Everyone I know has had a teacher who has had to leave because of the time caps,” he said.)

The limit for non-tenure-track teaching staff has long been a subject of discussion within FAS. In 2009, the FAS Advisory Committee on Non-Ladder Appointments wrestled with the question of whether a career track should be created for non-tenure-track faculty members. In the end, they decided no, although the decision was not unanimous. In the report, the committee reasoned that “Many of the teaching functions held by non-ladder faculty are highly demanding and require regeneration that brings in fresh ideas, new talent, and the most recent pedagogical techniques.” In addition, the committee concluded that, if too many non-ladder positions were made permanent, their ranks would become “top-heavy,” and “the flow of new talent would become a trickle.” 

During the rallies, speakers argued that, as universities, including Harvard, increasingly depend on non-tenure-track faculty members to carry the teaching load, these jobs no longer function as the transitional positions they once were. Fifty years ago, nearly 80 percent of college instructors across the United States were tenured or tenure-track; today, that proportion has essentially flipped: more than 70 percent are not in line for tenure. Within the FAS, the 2021-2022 annual report on faculty trends showed that while the ladder-faculty population has barely grown since 2010, the number of non-ladder faculty members has risen by 44 percent. 

“Folks are spending longer in these situations,” Boston city councilor Kenzie Bok ‘11—a social studies preceptor from 2017-2021—said at the rally in Longwood. “There was a time when the norm was, this was something people just did for a couple of years, and then they got their tenure-track jobs. That’s not the way of the world anymore.” 

Ben Ewen-Campen Ph.D. ’14, a genetics postdoc at the medical school and the president of Somerville’s city council, argued that the longstanding career pathways for non-tenure-track researchers have similarly shifted. “There is a stereotype of postdocs as a temporary position between grad school and a permanent high-paying job,” he said. “But talk to the people in your labs, look around. That is just not the reality. There are people here for multiple years, during prime earning years of their life, with families, with kids, trying to pay for housing and child care in one of the most expensive cities in the country.” 

(It is difficult to pin down precise percentages, but most of the 6,000 employees who would be eligible for union membership are  more likely researchers and other academic workers than teachers. The most recent Harvard University Fact Book lists the number of full-time faculty and research employees at 5,313. That total includes both tenure-track jobs and non-tenure-track. Support staff make up another 4,978 workers, and administrative and professional staff add another 7,133.)  

Speaking of the entire group of non-tenure-track academic workers across the university, Bok added, “The fact that there are 6,000 eligible people tells you everything you need to know about how much the University, from the medical campus to Harvard Yard, runs on your labor.” 


Other contract concerns threaded through Tuesday’s events. Speakers cited stories from colleagues of bullying and harassment (including sexual harassment: the continuing controversy surrounding recently reinstated John Comaroff, professor of anthropology and of African and African Americans studies, was referenced more than once). They talked about being overworked and under-supported, and mentioned colleagues whose research authorship had been “misappropriated.”  They talked about the extra-vulnerable position of international employees who rely on their supervisors’ approval for their visas.  

Most of all, they talked about compensation. It’s one of the most pressing issues motivating this unionization push, which comes at a time of inflation, prohibitive child-care costs, and steeply rising housing costs in one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the country. HAW-UAW organizers said that many non-tenure-track employees make as little as $50,000 per year; Mayank Chugh, a systems biology postdoc and chair of the Postdoc Association at Harvard Medical School, told the Longwood rally-goers that the average postdoc salary at Harvard last year was $56,000. 

Feldman, the Yiddish preceptor, argued that non-tenure-track teaching faculty face a similar financial predicament. “You shouldn’t have to be rich to teach at Harvard,” she said. “The choice we make when we come here for this job is, essentially—a rent burden, working multiple jobs, or living with roommates. I live with six roommates.” 

In light of these concerns, Harvard’s $50-billion endowment and yearly surpluses loomed large for the speakers. In its most recent financial report, released last June, the University recorded an operating surplus of $406 million for fiscal 2022, up from $283 million the previous fiscal year. Harvard has operated in the black since fiscal 2014 and produced nine-digit surpluses annually since 2017. “If you have $50 billion, it’s time to start acting like it,” said one student speaker, from the Labor and Employment Action Project at Harvard Law School. “They should be ashamed that their workers are facing poverty and precarity just to make this place run every day.” 


This organizing effort comes at a moment of economic tension between the University administration and its largest unionized cohort. Harvard has been in difficult negotiations for months with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) over compensation and benefits. In a February 7 letter to the Harvard community, Manuel Cuevas-Trisán, vice president for Human resources, stated that contract negotiations had begun in April 2022; in November, still unable to reach an agreement on wage increases, the two sides agreed to work with a third-party mediator. HUCTW’s current contract expired last September, but the union and the University have agreed to extend that contract until a new settlement is reached. (According to Cuevas-Trisán’s letter, the University’s current proposal’s include an 11.5 percent total increase in wages over three years, which amounts to more than $40 million total dollars; and a 14 percent increase over three years to HUCTW-administered funds that provide support for child-care, education, and transportation.) [Updated February 16, 9:30 a.m.: in statements on its website, HUCTW notes that the Universitys offers for the 2022 pay raise are less than most of the average 2022 pay increases of other private or unionized employers. In general, those average wage increases ranged from 4.8 to 6.3 percent, according to three large comparison studies quoted by HUCTW. The statement adds that inflation is a major concern for union negotiators: “Management’s salary increase offers still do not provide strong enough inflation protection for this past year, or for the anticipated inflation rates in 2023 or 2024.” In 2022, the rate of inflation was about 6.5 percent, reaching its highest levels in 40 years.]

On Tuesday, HUCTW vice president Natasha Williams joined representatives from other Harvard labor organizations—including the Harvard Graduate Students Union, campus custodians’ chapter of the Service Employees International Union, and dining hall workers’ Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union—in supporting the new labor push. “I just want to say, we have been standing beside you guys, side-by-side, doing this important work,” Williams said. Union members from other universities and corporations joined the rallies as well: the Boston University Graduate Workers Union, MIT Graduate Student Union, Alphabet Workers Union (commonly known as “the Google union”), and the Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union. 

A number of elected officials also spoke in support of HAW-UAW: in addition to Boston City Council member Kenzie Bok (no relation to former Harvard president Derek Bok) and Somerville City Council president Ewen-Campen, Massachusetts state representatives Erika Uyterhoeven and Mike Connolly offered remarks as well. U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey voiced their support, too: Warren in a tweet, and Markey in a statement, which Dichter read aloud at the Longwood rally. “I applaud workers exercising their right to organize as they engage with their coworkers in this most fundamental exercise in democracy,” Markey’s statement read, echoing words earlier in the day from Marshall Ganz, a longtime labor and civil rights organizer and the Hauser senior lecturer in leadership, organizing, and civil society at the Harvard Kennedy School. “You’ve decided to commit to one another to actually engage in collective power,” Ganz had told the Harvard Yard rally. “And that’s democracy.” 

Tenured faculty members also turned out to speak on behalf of the unionizing effort. “There are a lot of tenure-track and tenured faculty on this campus who support what you’re doing,” said professor of history Kirsten Weld. “You are our colleagues and collaborators. We teach the same students, we have the same scholarly conversations, but we don’t get to do that work under the same conditions. That is a structural injustice baked into the way academic labor works on this campus and in this country, and it’s a huge problem.” 

During the coming weeks, organizers will continue collecting signatures from non-tenure-track workers on union authorization cards, in hopes of prompting the University to voluntarily recognize the organization; otherwise, if 30 percent of eligible union members sign authorization cards, then union organizers can petition the National Labor Relations Board for a formal election. At that point, a majority vote would be required to certify the union. 

In an interview following the rally in Longwood, Dichter said the response from workers so far had been “extremely positive.” When organizers talk with their coworkers, he said, “There are different levels of familiarity with unionization and what it means. Some people have been through this before at their graduate institution. And for some people it’s a really new concept.” But Dichter said he rarely has to explain the reasons for needing a union. “That’s very clear, the motivations for coming together.” 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson
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