In the months since students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences made public their effort to unionize, University President Drew G. Faust has made it clear that she is opposed to the movement.
In April, several GSAS students confirmed that they were mobilizing to unionize—a move that could fundamentally alter the way graduate students interact with the University as teaching fellows. Led by graduate students Aaron T. Bekemeyer and Elaine F. Stranahan, members of the movement say a union will allow the them to use collective bargaining in negotiations and improve the complaint system at Harvard.
Though Stranahan said in April she hoped the University and the students would “see eye-to-eye” on graduate student unionization, Harvard’s president has said that will not be the case.
“We really think that it's a mistake for graduate students to unionize, that it changes a mentoring relationship between faculty and students into a labor relationship, which it is not appropriate and is not what is represented by the experience of graduate students in the University,” Faust said in a May interview. “We do not support the unionization for graduate students.”
Since then, Faust has stood by her stance on graduate student unionization, University spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an email Tuesday.
And legal precedent set by rulings on similar graduate student unionization efforts concur with Faust’s opinion. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board determined that graduate students at Brown were classified as non-employees and were therefore not eligible to create a union. As a result, Harvard has no legal obligation to recognize a union, even if the graduate students at GSAS voted in the majority in favor of unionization.
Undeterred, Bekemeyer said he hoped that Faust would change her mind.
“Collective bargaining and a contract will give us a voice in the conditions of our work, real security, and tangible benefits like dental care, parental leave, affordable childcare, housing and transportation subsidies, and affordable benefits coverage for partners and dependents,” Bekemeyer wrote in an email Saturday.
Looking outside of the legal realm brings some promise for the GSAS students, as some graduate students have been able to form unions recognized by their universities. In 2013, New York University recognized a union of teaching and research assistants, the first in the country to be recognized by a private university, according to The New York Times.
Though Harvard’s graduate students face an uphill battle, they have said they are following pending unionization cases closely—most notably, a case brought to the NLRB by graduate students at Columbia, who in 2014 voted to establish a union that has not been recognized by the administration. Graduate students at Yale have also made efforts to unionize, but have not received recognition from the university.
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.
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