Unionizing Harvard Academic Workers

Pay, child care, workplace protections at issue 

Harvard Yard

Non-tenure-track faculty and other academic employees will vote on April 3 and 4 whether to form a union. | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

After a yearlong public campaign—and the three years of quiet organizing that preceded it—non-tenure-track faculty and other academic employees will vote on April 3 and 4 whether to form a union. Calling for higher wages, better job security, and stronger workplace protections against harassment, Harvard Academic Workers-United Auto Workers (HAW-UAW) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) early this month for a union election. Days later, the University agreed not to oppose the bid. “Now we’re just gearing up to get folks out to vote,” says J. Gregory Given, Ph.D. ’19, one of HAW-UAW’s organizers. Given, who holds teaching appointments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Harvard Divinity School (HDS), said, “Just talking to workers who are excited about this campaign, I think we are in a strong position.”

Harvard did not respond to a request for comment.

If ratified, the union would consist of two separate bargaining units under the HAW-UAW umbrella. The largest encompasses about 3,100 employees in FAS, HDS, and Harvard Medical School (HMS), including lecturers, preceptors, instructors, postdoctoral fellows, teaching assistants, research associates, and adjunct faculty members. The second bargaining unit comprises about 110 staff members in Harvard Law School (HLS) clinical programs.

Initially, organizers had estimated the union would include as many as 6,000 University staff members. But as the campaign progressed during the past year, Given said, “It became clear that it made more sense to go ahead and file [petitions with the NLRB] for the schools where we had really active, deep leadership ranks as well as a really broad base of support from workers.” Meanwhile, he and others continue organizing in the Harvard Kennedy School, the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Business School, the Graduate School of Design, and other units. “We have definitely not left anybody behind,” Given said. “Those schools, we hope, will be able to file further NLRB petitions in the future to join our union.”

The HAW-UAW push comes amid a growing wave of successful labor campaigns among academic workers at other universities. In January, non-tenure-track faculty at Wellesley College voted to unionize, and workers at New York University did the same this month. Lecturers and adjunct instructors at Boston University unionized in 2015. And postdoctoral fellows have formed unions at several institutions, including Columbia University, Rutgers University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of California system. “I believe unionization is really the one tool we have left as workers in the academy to save our profession,” said Shahinaz Geneid, a visiting teaching fellow at FAS’s Center for Government and International Studies. “That might sound really dramatic and existential, but I think it’s true.”

She highlighted the shift from a tenure-based structure in academia to one that relies heavily on temporary positions and adjunct instructors. Fifty years ago, nearly 80 percent of U.S. college instructors were tenured or tenure-track; today, less than 30 percent are. At Harvard, the FAS tenured and tenure-track faculty has barely grown since 2010, but non-tenure-track faculty numbers have risen by 44 percent. “It’s highly unlikely for the vast majority of us that we will ever see tenure,” Geneid said. “But many of us still want to continue to do research; we want to continue teaching. And the way to do this is to be employed in these very precarious types of positions.” A scholar of human rights law, Geneid teaches on politics and identity in the Middle East, in the Extension School and the College’s General Education program. Her position exists on a semester-by-semester basis. “In order to have any possibility to make these positions livable—to get sufficient benefits, to get sufficient pay—your only real option,” she said, “is to unionize.”

 

During the past year, HAW-UAW organizers’ major concerns have remained largely consistent. Near the top of the list is the precarity Geneid described. Non-tenure-track positions operate on short-term contracts that must be renewed annually or every few years—or in cases like Geneid’s, every semester. And in FAS, non-tenure-track faculty members can hold teaching appointments for a maximum of eight years. After that, they’re ineligible for renewal, regardless of performance or scholarly achievement. “Those of us in FAS are all keenly aware of the time caps associated with our jobs,” Given said. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about people being constantly stressed about reappointment, or never really sure if they’re going to live here year over year, and that makes it difficult to put down roots or feel settled at all….The time caps very clearly show us to be expendable.”

FAS’s term limits have long been a subject of dispute and discussion. In 2009, the FAS Advisory Committee on Non-Ladder Appointments considered the possibility of creating a career track for non-tenure-track faculty members and decided against it, though the decision was not unanimous. In its report, the committee argued that these positions “require regeneration that brings in fresh ideas, new talent, and the most recent pedagogical techniques,” and also concluded that if the jobs were made permanent, the non-tenure-track faculty ranks would become “top-heavy” and “the flow of new talent would become a trickle.” The policy was reviewed in 2020 and upheld.

Perhaps the most central issue for HAW-UAW organizers, at a time of skyrocketing rents and prohibitive child-care costs, is compensation. At HMS, the median salary for postdocs is about $62,000 per year. “The cost of living, and the cost to be doing research here at Harvard, is very high, and it’s growing,” said organizer Kara Fulton, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of neurobiology professor Sandeep Robert Datta. “And it’s especially high for people from low-income backgrounds or from international places. And if you have two children and you are trying to do academic research, it becomes more and more impossible for you to survive.”

Child care is a big part of that survival question, especially as academic workers spend longer stretches of their lives in non-tenure-track jobs. Fulton mentioned one fellow postdoc in her lab whose entire salary goes toward child care (and whose partner is also a postdoc). Meanwhile, in FAS, Given noted, current policy offers substantially more generous parental leave for tenure-track faculty members (14 weeks at full pay) than for their lower-paid non-tenure-track colleagues (12 weeks at partial pay). FAS subsidies and options for child care are similarly divided.

Organizers have also called on the University to expand visa-processing assistance and financial support for international academic workers, many of whom must periodically travel back to their home countries, often at great expense, to renew their visas. Morgan Gilman, an organizer who since 2019 has been an HMS postdoc in the lab of Andrew Kruse, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, argued that expanded support for international workers—as well as higher compensation all around—is not just a matter of improving conditions, but maintaining good scientific research. “When people are forced out because they can’t survive, it means we’re changing the landscape of who’s doing the research here,” she said. “It puts up a wall, and it means we’re funneling toward people who have extra financial support.” Recently, she lost a lab colleague, who left because of the combined financial burden of a postdoctoral fellowship and the difficulty of maintaining a visa. “That is a really negative thing for how we do science,” Gilman said. “It has a negative impact on the diversity of viewpoints. It’s a real problem in academic science.”

Further, she added, organizers are concerned about workplace protections and safety. In a 2020 FAS climate survey, 22 percent of non-tenure-track faculty reported having experienced bullying or harassment, and in a 2022 FAS survey of postdocs 11 percent reported that they’d been bullied—and the incidence was highest among those in the sciences and engineering. Gilman said she’s heard stories of postdoctoral colleagues in HMS being harassed as well. “Each lab is sort of its own ecosystem,” she said, “and for most of us, that’s wonderful, because we have great advisers. But that’s not true for everyone, and when there are pockets where people are being bullied or harassed, there’s not really a mechanism to change that.” Organizers contend that existing University policies to protect employees are sometimes not enforced, and at other times, inadequate.

 

At HLS, organizers for HAW-UAW’s smaller bargaining unit share those wider concerns, but their other pressing issues are more particular, related to a disparity in treatment between “podium faculty” members and clinical instructors and researchers. “The Law School’s leadership is constantly reminding us that we are regarded as second-class citizens instead of serious colleagues engaged in a co-equal and equally significant academic pursuit,” said John Fitzpatrick, J.D. ’87, senior clinical instructor at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP). In everything from employee pay to academic credit for students, to budgetary decisions, to routine communications with HLS leadership, he said, there exists a “dysfunctional” and “unnecessarily elitist” division.

He described requests for funding that disappear into an “opaque fog of decision-making” without communication from above, and annual emails from administrators that ask clinical instructors to volunteer to help serve lunch during Commencement to students, their parents, and other faculty members. Typically tied to one- or three-year contracts, clinical faculty members have “limited to no opportunity” to take sabbaticals and typically don’t receive funding for research and writing projects. “It’s often a stagnant position you’re in,” Fitzpatrick said, “with no real opportunity to develop your own bibliography as a serious scholar in your field.”

Fitzpatrick has supervised PLAP since 1997, and he first worked in the program as a Harvard law student in the 1980s. In the decades since, clinical programs have gone from being an occasional add-on experience for students to an increasingly popular and expected element of a law school education. Harvard now has 25 in-house clinics, and 89 percent of last year’s graduating class participated in at least one of them. Patricia Alejandro, J.D. ’17, an instructor in the Transactional Law Clinics, remembers choosing Harvard partly because of its clinical offerings: “It’s part of the branding, part of the success of the school.” After graduation, she worked at both a major law firm and a smaller legal nonprofit in New York before returning to campus a year and a half ago to teach. She explained that clinical participation often creates a significant advantage for newly graduated job-seekers. “Having been on the hiring side, if someone has at least clinical experience, that’s already going to make them competitive,” she said, “because they understand practically what the work looks like, not just theoretically.” This is especially true in public interest law, she added, where resources are limited for training new hires.

Fitzpatrick would like to see the Law School either adopt a unitary tenure track that has a single set of standards for both traditional and clinical faculty members, or else offer tenure for clinical staff on their own track. “It’s frustrating not having any sort of a transparent process that provides a means, especially for my younger colleagues, to advance in a productive way that would be similar to that of their professorial colleagues on the lecture side,” he said. In part this is needed, he continued, because teaching responsibilities for clinical faculty have expanded dramatically in recent years as clinics have attracted more and more students. “In my own work, I often find myself teaching or reteaching elements of civil procedure and administrative law, criminal procedure, constitutional law to many of my students who have already taken those courses,” he said. “We’re not just lawyers who have a law student tagging along; our students do a lot of the legal work, and in the course of that, we have to teach a lot of law.” And because the cases involve real clients, he said, “We have to do so with very little, if any, margin of error.”

Clinical faculty members are also often a first point of contact for students seeking career advice, recommendations, or mentorship, Alejandro added. “We’re doing a lot of the informal support work.” She lamented the lack of overlap between the clinical and traditional faculties. “I don’t think a lot of the podium faculty know what we do and how it complements the work they’re doing,” she said. “It’s two totally different worlds. We don’t communicate. And there’s room to do so much more”—to work together on projects and classes—“if the structure was there for collaboration. I think we could do great things together.”

 

If a majority eligible workers vote in favor of the union next month, HAW-UAW will choose a bargaining committee and an official slate of issues and begin negotiations with the University. Given, who joined the organizing effort three years ago, is eager to start that process. His first real experience of the tenuousness in academic work came when he was a postdoc at the University of Virginia in 2020; after COVID-19 hit, his planned reappointment was abruptly cancelled without warning, and he spent the next year back in Cambridge, cobbling together an income from teaching as an adjunct at four different institutions (including Harvard), working as a freelance copyeditor, and tutoring students in Greek. “I probably made less than $40,000 that year, before taxes,” he said. He was already sympathetic to the power of unions for university workers when he joined Harvard as a full-time employee, but since then, he said, the need for collective bargaining has become even clearer. “Just realizing that administrators were never going to make decisions in terms of what was best for us was really eye-opening for me, and kind of reinvigorating,” he said. “It’s really important for us to have a seat at the table in determining our working conditions. Because otherwise, there’s nobody advocating for us.”

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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