​An Imperfect Union

Employed students must not only consider the advantages to unionization under HGSU-UAW.

UPDATED: Nov. 16, 2016, at 9:34 p.m.

Students across the University’s schools will have the opportunity to cast their ballots for or against unionization under the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers’ plan this Wednesday and Thursday. This contentious election will resolve months of debate following the National Labor Relations Board’s decision granting students employed as teachers or researchers the right to form a union. Because these students also function as employees, it is vital that they have the ability to unionize if they so choose.

Nevertheless, the particulars of the agreement being voted on should preclude employed students from seeing the formation of a union as a beneficial foregone conclusion. Approximately 4,000 students from across the University’s schools, including undergraduate course assistants and teaching fellows but not research assistants, would be eligible to join the proposed union. These students’ degree programs, fields of study, and types of employment all vary greatly, so it is unclear how a union representing all of them would be best able to accommodate issues important to any given subset of the employed student body. Students must weigh the benefits of collective bargaining against the drawbacks of allowing other students to vote on issues that do not directly affect them.

Furthermore, the advantages to this measure are especially uncertain, given that there is no precedent in academia for a union this all-encompassing. Union organizers at Harvard have not proposed an alternate method of student unionization that would organize smaller groups of students—the “micro-bargaining unit” tactic that the Yale graduate student union rejected last month.

Additionally, unionization is by no means the only way for graduate students to increase the benefits they receive. Last semester, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doubled the amount of money and time students receive for parental leave. Employed students may well determine that forming a union may be the best avenue to improving their work environment, of course, but it is not the only way for them to do so.

Students eligible to vote must also be cognizant of the ways in which the HGSU-UAW would, and would not, be able to influence student life. Unionization will not serve as a panacea for all the issues facing employed students at the University, and will only affect bargaining for wages, working conditions, and the like. It will have little effect on advisor relations or other aspects of the student experience, and students wishing to improve those aspects of being at Harvard should be wary of looking to the HGSU-UAW to do so.

These issues are critically important ones, not just for currently employed students at the University but for students yet to arrive. Therefore, employed students have a duty to each other and to their successors to take time before the vote to educate themselves about these issues, and decide whether or not they think unionization under HGSU-UAW is prudent before casting their ballots. It is not our place to tell employed students how they should vote on the matter, but we strongly urge them to consider the importance of this election, and to examine the potential drawbacks to unionization as well as the potential benefits of the union before voting.

CORRECTION: Nov. 16, 2016
This editorial was updated to clarify that the Yale graduate student assembly, not Yale graduate students, rejected the "micro-bargaining unit strategy." The Yale graduate students have not yet voted.


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