Teaching Fellows of GSAS, Unite!

Harvard should heed graduate student demands and improve conditions

Since a group of graduate students announced last spring that they would seek the right to unionize, their campaign has steadily gained momentum. At the first Graduate Student Council meeting of the year, organizers solicited new members. Last month, the students also partnered with the United Auto Workers Union, which has previously helped graduate students unionize at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Lowell. And earlier this month, the campaign launched its website, further increasing pressure on the university to recognize graduate student unionization.

But these developments have come in the face of persistent opposition from university administrators. University President Drew G. Faust has maintained that unionization would degrade the pedagogical relationship between faculty and graduate students into one between management and labor. Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng has carved out a similar stance, encouraging dialogue but arguing against the “disadvantages of union membership” in a memo to GSAS faculty. For now, this position has solid legal ground: In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that private universities are not legally obligated to recognize graduate student unions.

Yet in the midst of this debate, Harvard’s moral obligation to better its treatment of graduate student employees is clear. As a Crimson scrutiny highlighted last spring, the more than 1,200 teaching fellows at Harvard are often tasked with a tough balance between their teaching roles and their own studies. These difficulties are particularly acute during shopping week, when teaching fellows scramble to find classes despite unclear enrollment numbers.

Graduate student employees have also broached other concerns, which they claim could be managed through a union. Teaching fellows are paid just $20,520 to teach two sections per semester. Furthermore, according to a 2014 Graduate Student Council survey, more than 20 percent of teaching fellows reported payment delays of more than two weeks. And GSAS students have also experienced difficulty in finding sufficient medical care services.

As the Crimson previously opined, unionization could facilitate solutions to these concerns. In the past, the University has had little incentive to better conditions for graduate students. But with graduate student unionization now in the spotlight, pressure for reform is increasing.

If Harvard administrators are so afraid of the idea of unionization in the context of how it would affect the University’s academic ideals and institutions, then that should be reason enough for change. Whether through unionization or a full reevaluation of graduate students’ situation, the administration must act to address the demands of one of Harvard’s hardest working groups, and in so doing strengthen our overall academic community.

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