Labor Organizing at Harvard
In the midst of the Vietnam War, with "Tricky Dick" Nixon in the White House, 1100 members of the recently formed Graduate Student/Teaching Fellows Union closed down Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences for a day—March 28, 1972. The tutors and Teaching Fellows picketed, the students in solidarity stayed away, and some faculty sympathetically held classes off campus. The Crimson published editorials in favor of the Union and gave our leaders space to explain their causes.
The anti-labor legislation starting in Wisconsin, the recent pro-labor rallies at the Massachusetts State House, which I attended with friends in full voice, and the “We Are One” movement mobilizing around the nation on April 4 suddenly make all issues of unionization and workers' rights today's top issues.
In that sense, what causes people to fight back?
The bitter immediate cause for busy Teaching Fellows in the 1970s was a cut in a major part of our compensation. The University unilaterally decided to rescind $1,000 in tuition remission. The top salary was $3,200 a year, so we were going to suffer a humiliating 35 percent cut in pay and be charged tuition for a third year when we no longer took courses. To add extra bitterness, the University simultaneously announced a move instituting "need-based" fellowships that would consider spouse and parental assets in determining need. We "Officers," as we were still called—whose teaching in sections, tutorials, and seminars saved Harvard 313 full-time faculty salaries—were going to be forced into embarrassing dependency on our families. The administration argued that we were mostly middle class and could pay. The new Union pointed out that parents who earned as little as $7,000 would be asked to contribute to their adult offspring.
FAS needed more low-paid teachers, as the 1970s were the years in which the College, wanting to add more undergraduate women to improve its gender ratio, grew rapidly. FAS could in theory have eliminated sections and tutorials, but those were necessary elements in a College whose students complained about the size of their classes and their distance from the elite research faculty. $1 million was at stake, which was real money in 1972. Foundations and the government were cutting grants for graduate education. Without our million dollars, the FAS said it would have a deficit.
It was soon to be the moment—1974—when the University decided to move from a conservative investment strategy toward a riskier one, overseen by the establishment of the Harvard Management Company with the same sort of aggressiveness that led to the recent stunning billion-dollar losses from the endowment.
One hundred-fifty of us turned up at the meeting on March 13 where the Dean of GSAS announced this. That night we decided to form a union. We organized all the departments. People came together; some later became major scholars—Mahmood Mamdani, Theda Skocpol, Mike Ferber, and Frank Ackerman to name a few. I was a tutor in History and Literature, and although I had a full foundation fellowship (and so was financially unaffected by the changes) and a four-year-old child and a thesis to write, I was moved by the injustice. I became a fervent drudge of an organizer and a press liaison. We had great posters, cartoons, and persuasive rhetoric.
To us in the Union, Harvard's attitude was a lesson in bad labor-management relations, and the irony was not lost on us that this struggle took place under two lawyers who were labor experts, Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, and John Dunlop, then Dean of the Faculty. In two weeks, the Union transformed us from isolated and detached individuals into a collective of intellectual laborers and junior colleagues–the "Officers" of the University that our ID cards called us.
But Dean Dunlop said a commission should study the issues and report back. The other grad students put down their picket signs as he knew they would. I was on that futile Commission–one of six student members. John Rawls, fresh from having published “A Theory of Justice,” was on it. Only later did he tell a Union member privately: "The students’ cause is just." Before we could make more than one recommendation, however, the administration made the first of those decisions I’ve described, which resulted in the weakening of the power of the faculty in governance issues.
Teaching Fellows still have similar gripes against administrations, although they are future colleagues who ought to be treated with respect. Our experience then might be a lesson—not to lose in committee, not to give up. There are still many vibrant TF unions on campuses around the nation.
What is still perfectly clear is the solidarity that the TFs, the graduate students, the undergraduates, and some faculty all shared. Thinking about all this, the old indignation and fever for justice rush back—the resentment at hypocrisy, the contempt for careless power, and the exultation of belonging to a collective organization with shared values. Maybe such motives will send Americans into the streets now, in a national time of crisis for labor organizing.
Margaret M. Gullette, Radcliffe '62, is a Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center of Brandeis University.