Students Head to Voting Booths for First Day of Historic Student Union Election

UPDATED: November 17, 2016, at 11:55 a.m.

Wednesday marked the first day of the historic election vote to ratify the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, generating buzz about the potential of student unionization from the Barker Center cafe to the M2 shuttle.

Eligible graduate student research and teaching assistants, as well as undergraduate teaching assistants, cast their ballots for or against unionization at the Phillips Brooks House in the Yard and the Dental School in Longwood.

Unionization Vote
A posted sign directs voters to the polling place for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW unionization vote in Phillips Brooks House Wednesday afternoon. Eligible graduate and undergraduate students are voting to decide whether they will be represented by the HGSU-UAW union.

“There’s really an atmosphere of excitement on campus,” union organizer and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student Abigail Weil said.

The election, run by the National Labor Relations Board, featured official observers and voting booths. Officials checked a list of names at each location, and if a name was not on the list, the students voted under challenge.

One type of challenge—a student voting outside of his or her assigned location—only requires officials to verify that the student voted once. If a student is not on a list at all but believes he or she is eligible to vote, the student can still vote under challenge, and verification will occur after the election.

Ph.D. students who are not currently working, but have previously worked and likely will work again, and are not in their dissertation completion year, were able to cast a vote. The NLRB will have to decide if the students in this particular situation can be included in the bargaining unit.

Weil said far more people are voting under challenge than expected, but she encouraged students whose eligibility is in question to still vote. One graduate student at the Kennedy School, Heli Mishael, said she had to vote under challenge but was not told why.

Long lines deterred some students at the PBHA location. At 1 p.m., the entrance to the building was filled with students waiting to vote. Several students entered the building, saw the line, and turned right back around.

“Forget that, far too many people,” one man laughed on his way out. Another woman said she had to catch the shuttle and didn’t have time to wait.

Mishael, who voted “yes” to unionization, said the process could have been smoother. She texted one of the organizers because she was concerned about the long lines but added that the 10-minute wait “wasn’t the end of the world.”

Nina Gheihman, a Sociology Ph.D. student who also voted in favor of unionization, said the wait time did not pose a problem for her.

“I thought it was very well organized, official, and very straightforward,” Gheihman said.

Several students at the Dental School location said they voted against unionization, highlighting what appears to be a rift between social sciences and humanities students, who tend to support unionization, and the sciences and engineering students. An overwhelming majority of the signatories on the email sent by students in the “Against HGSU-UAW” group came from science and engineering backgrounds.

Physics Ph.D. student Jae Hyeon Lee, who openly opposes unionization and created the “Against HGSU-UAW” Facebook page, said the students actively organizing against unionization have not focused their postering efforts on the social sciences and humanities departments.

“We think that all the humanities and social sciences departments are strongly pro-union, so maybe these active students are shying away from those departments,” Lee said.

Maya Mathur, a Ph.D. student in Biostatistics, said she voted “no” to unionizing.

“I think it would be disruptive to research,” Mathur said.

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

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: November 17, 2016

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that eligible voters cast their ballots at the Phillips Brooks House Association in Harvard Yard. In fact, ballots were cast at Phillips Brooks House.

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