Graduate Students Start Movement To Unionize

In a move that could alter the working dynamic between Harvard and many of its teaching fellows and Ph.D. seekers, a group of graduate students has begun an effort to unionize, according to members of the movement.

Aaron T. Bekemeyer and Elaine F. Stranahan, graduate students involved in the unionization effort, said Friday that the movement is still in its early stages, but added that it counts members from all three divisions of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Bekemeyer and Stranahan did not share the number of participants with The Crimson.

The Harvard graduate students join peers at Yale in organizing to unionize. If the movement is successful, it could change the way graduate students interact with the University, according to members who envisioned a more centralized complaint system and suggested that a union could empower graduate students in negotiations with Harvard.

“We are interested in making the University a better place for grad students to do the best research and teaching that they can do,” Bekemeyer said.

Massachusetts Hall
Massachusetts Hall, the home of Harvard's central administration, is pictured.

Stranahan said she hopes Harvard and its graduate students can see eye-to-eye.

“We are hopeful that the University will be fully cooperative with us, that they share the exact same interests that we are advocating for, that what is their best interest is in our interest, that we are on the same side, really,” she said.

Legal precedent, however, has gone against similar efforts at other schools. While last year the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern held the legal status of employees at the university and could form a union, a 2004 ruling classified graduate students at Brown as non-employees, meaning that federal union protections would not apply to them. This ruling, according to Rutgers professor Paula B. Voos, means that private schools still hold the upper hand with graduate union efforts.

“[Graduate students] cannot make the employers [recognize a union] even if they have an election that wins the majority vote saying that they wish to unionize,” Voos said.

Citing that precedent, Columbia has not recognized a union that graduate students voted to form in 2014. Those students have since brought their case to the NLRB, which has not yet announced a decision.

When New York University teaching and research assistants unionized in 2013, they were the only union of graduate assistants recognized by a private university in the U.S., according to The New York Times. Many administrations at other private universities where there have been unionization movements have opposed it.

Members of the Harvard movement are watching other unionization movements closely, according to Stranahan.

“We are aware of and following some of the unionization campaigns among graduate students and other schools,” she said. “We have yet to see what that larger national scene and the legal circumstances that result and how that will affect what our path will end up being.”

Ann Hall, a GSAS spokesperson, declined to comment on the school’s views of the labor movement. Anna Cowenhoven, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, similarly declined.

Stranahan said the unionization movement is focusing on a number of issues, including health care including dental care, housing and family concerns, and the experience of teaching fellows.

Bekemeyer drew a distinction between the Harvard Teaching Campaign, a movement focused on capping section sizes in undergraduate courses, and the unionization group, but said the entities might work toward complementary goals.

“The Teaching Campaign is about a pedagogical issue about providing a better opportunity for undergraduates in these classes. But I also think it is a platform to raise these other issues about what teaching is like for TFs, and it won’t solve all of them directly, but it will hopefully provide momentum to address these other issues,” he said. “These are the exact sort of issues that [a] union would help with.”

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at jill.steinman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillsteinman.

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