With the unionization election just one week away, eligible graduate and undergraduate voters have begun considering the cost of membership dues in a potential student union.
Teaching and research assistants from across the University will head to the polls next Wednesday and Thursday to vote for or against authorizing the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers as their collective bargaining unit.
A student union—which, if approved, would include all eligible voters regardless of their preference—would collect fees from its members to pay for union services. Some students at Harvard have expressed concerns or confusion over paying those dues. When Graduate Student Council President Darcy L. Frear solicited questions about unionization at the Council’s monthly meeting last week, “the biggest recurring question we have received is about union dues,” she wrote in an email.
“I think ‘how much are dues?’ is one of the first questions generally asked when a student learns about the union,” Frear wrote.
HOW DUES WORK
The benefits of union representation come with the cost of dues, which unions use to provide services such as a strike fund, organizers, and legal staffing. The United Auto Workers’ base rate for dues is 1.44 percent of income.
HGSU-UAW spokesperson and Ph.D. student Jack M. Nicoludis wrote in an email that graduate student union members affiliated with the UAW across the country “are paying dues to help us win our union because they know that unions can improve the lives of workers and that together we can raise the standards for student workers.”
“This is an investment in the voice of student workers in the U.S.,” Nicoludis wrote.
Union organizers have stressed that dues will not be collected until after a suitable contract is negotiated and approved. Nicoludis wrote that the money “would be taken out of each paycheck for teaching or research work, with written permission from each member.”
If a majority of eligible student voters authorize the HGSU-UAW as their union, all students within the bargaining unit would be required to become members and pay dues, or be non-members and pay agency fees. A worker cannot opt out of a union, particularly because everyone in the bargaining unit stands to benefit from any potential gains the union achieves, according to University of Oregon Professor Gordon Lafer, who works at the university's Labor Education and Research Center and has been an organizer for several unions.
But students can choose to not be a member and pay the agency fee, which is less than the cost of dues and goes only toward “representation” costs, considered the “costs of negotiating and enforcing the contract at this workplace,” Lafer wrote in an email.
People who pay the reduced agency fee do not contribute to “non-representation” costs, such as “political, charitable, or union-solidarity work,” he added.
Asked if an amount has been set for the agency fee, Nicoludis wrote, “It is a subject of negotiation.”
In a University-wide email that laid out what he viewed as the stakes of unionization, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote that at a rate of 1.44 percent, “a Harvard teaching fellow who receives a stipend of $21,200 would pay union dues of $305 per year.”
STUDENTS WEIGH IN
Undergraduates would pay far less in dues, given that they are not required to teach and typically take home a significantly smaller salary. Despite the lower cost, a few undergrads were skeptical of dues while some graduate students welcomed the additional fees.
Undergraduate course assistant Shira Li ’19 said dues are “definitely one major factor in my distaste for the union.” Li said she makes roughly $2,500 a semester, and estimated she would pay around $30 in dues.
“I guess $30 is not all that significant over the course of the semester, but then also, it’s not zero,” Li said.
Undergraduate teaching fellow Tony Turner ’19 estimated he would pay, if a student union is formed, around $20.
“Which isn’t a lot, but it’s enough. You’d like to have 20 extra dollars in your pocket,” Turner said.
Li said she feels undergraduates don't necessarily have as strong a reason to unionize as do graduate students.
“I think grad students have perhaps good reason to unionize because I believe that teaching is part of their requirements in grad school, in addition to their coursework,” Li said. “So for them it’s a requirement, but for undergrad CAs it’s a choice that we make.”
Some graduate students said they are ready to pay dues. Education School student Joseph C. McIntyre wrote in an email that he is “not worried” about dues, and plans to vote in favor of unionization. He wrote that as he understands it, “if our contract doesn’t increase our salaries enough to make dues worthwhile, then we can vote against the contract in which case we won’t need to pay dues.”
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.