Students Opposing Unionization Escalate Activity As Vote Nears

A loosely organized effort opposed to student unionization has escalated its activities in the leadup to this week’s vote on whether students from across Harvard’s graduate schools and the College will form a collective bargaining unit.

Graduate students against establishing a union circulated an email to fellow students Thursday with their main points against unionization, and have created a Facebook page to share their views.

This week’s coming vote is the culmination of several years of work to organize a graduate student union. A federal ruling in August cleared the path for students to bargain collectively.

The anti-unionization email, sent by Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student Momchil Tomov, was signed by 18 graduate students and listed the arguments against voting in favor of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers union effort. The majority of the signatories are students in the sciences and engineering.

“We are a group of graduate students who believe that while the possible benefits of unionization have been widely advertised, the potential disruptions and disadvantages have been downplayed or ignored,” the email reads.

“We are not against unions: we are against this union,” the email continues. “We work with Harvard, not against it. Our needs are not best met by a labor-bargaining model.”

Among the students’ arguments is that the cost of dues will not be offset by potential stipend increases that result from collective bargaining. Other points argue that “a union will be disruptive to your academic experience” and that a “one-size-fits-all” contract will not be effective.

Pushing back, HGSU-UAW organizer and Ph.D. student Rudi Batzell wrote in an email to The Crimson, “The only thing we have promised is that we will have more power to negotiate improvements to pay, benefits and rights. Empirically, we have pointed out that collective bargaining have made things better.”

The students against the HGSU-UAW also argued that a conflict of interest arises because organizers are paid by the UAW—they claimed organizers are paid up to $500 a week.

Batzell wrote that he does not believe it is a conflict of interest. He added that part-time staff are “paid a flat rate”—of $500 per week for 20+ hours of work, according to the union effort’s website.

“No one is getting paid to change their position or opinions,” Batzell wrote. “Those willing to make sacrifices and commit their time are being fairly compensated.”

In addition to sending the email, opponents to the unionization effort have publicized their view on a Facebook page. Ph.D. student Jae Hyeon Lee created the “Against HGSU-UAW” page earlier this month. It has now garnered close to 330 likes. Lee said he created the page as a “forum” for those who may feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions, and “so people can hear the other side of the story as well.”

Lee has long been a vocal opponent of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers, but now other graduate students are also speaking up against unionization.

Union supporters have expressed skepticism at the motives of the students involved in the “Against HGSU-UAW” group—Batzell wrote that they employ similar tactics as the administration, and one student asked directly on the Facebook page if the group is in any way affiliated with the University.

Students involved with the group have stated their actions are independent of the administration.

Ph.D. student Elizabeth P. West, one of the signatories, said such allegations of administrative collusion are “disappointing.”

“There are many students that are pro-union who seem inclined to believe that it is not possible to oppose unionization without somehow having an ulterior motive, other than the best interests of Harvard’s community,” she said. “That’s been a little bit disappointing. I don’t find it intimidating, but I wish we could all argue in good faith.”

University spokesperson Ann Hall confirmed the administration’s lack of involvement, writing, “While GSAS is aware of the Against HGSU-UAW Facebook page and the email the group recently sent, we were not involved in the creation or dissemination of either.”

Students on both sides said they have been taken aback by the tense rhetoric.

Union organizer and Ph.D. student Avery A. Davis wrote in an email, “I have to say I am quite astounded at the level of vitriol on this page toward hundreds of graduate students at Harvard who have spent the last two years working to establish a voice through collective bargaining, which we believe will make our lives better and will make Harvard more inclusive and accessible in the process.”

Since sending the email articulating viewpoints against unionization, Tomov received several explicit emails from fellow students; one called him a “fascist,” and another wrote “I'm sure the President-elect is grateful for your work on this.”

Someone also signed Tomov’s email up for President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign mailing list, he wrote. He was also notified of four unidentified attempts to log into his Facebook account.

However, Tomov wrote that the inflammatory emails were in the minority. Some have thanked him for the information and expressed a desire to get involved, while others expressed a desire to not be contacted again, or respectfully rebutted the main points of the email.

Students eligible to vote will take part in secret ballot voting for or against forming a union between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Nov. 16 and 17, with a two hour break at 2:30 p.m. Voting at the Business School will only take place Nov. 17 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at leah.yared@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

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