Vote Count on Student Unionization Pushed to Tuesday

UPDATED: November 21, 2016, at 2:38 p.m.

National Labor Relations Board officials have not yet begun counting the ballots of students who voted in last week’s union election due to the time-consuming process of sifting through challenges. The vote count process will resume Tuesday, according to union effort spokesperson and Ph.D. student Jack M. Nicoludis.

Graduate student teaching and research assistants, as well as undergraduate teaching assistants, voted in the NLRB-supervised election on authorizing the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers last Wednesday and Thursday.

After voting in the historic election ended, ballot boxes were delivered to the NLRB regional building in Boston. They were expected to be unsealed and counted on Friday, after Harvard officials and graduate student union organizers came to an agreement on the challenged ballots.

The process is taking longer than expected, however. Harvard officials, graduate student organizers, and NLRB officials spent Friday sifting through challenged ballots one by one. Boston’s NLRB general attorney Gene M. Switzer estimated that there are roughly 3,500 total votes, and about 1,000 challenged ballots.

NLRB deputy regional attorney Robert P. Redbord said the logistics of this case complicated things. Although the Boston regional office has held much larger elections in the past, Harvard’s election spanned two days, three different locations, and ended late at night, preventing an immediate count.

For reasons of practicality, Redbord said officials do not begin a count unless they can finish it that day.

Graduate students sat alongside Harvard’s representatives from the Office of Labor and Employee Relations and the Office of the General Counsel as both sides commented on each challenged ballot—from name discrepancies, to voting at a different location than the one assigned, to voting without being on any voter list at all.

About 100 students voted under challenge due to a name discrepancy. Union organizer and Ph.D. student Sam S. Klug said the names of some students on the voter lists did not match their full legal names as noted on their IDs.

“We have basically a lot of avoidable problems that Harvard created with the list they gave us,” Klug said, adding that the HGSU-UAW made Harvard aware of this issue before the election.

But Erica F. Crystal, Harvard’s associate director of labor and employee relations, wrote in an email provided by University spokesperson Ann Hall that Harvard first learned of the name discrepancy issue on Wednesday, the first day of the election. According to Crystal, those students were able to vote and thus far, the “vast majority of those challenges were resolved.”

As of 3 p.m. on Friday, the parties were still discussing challenges, and had not yet gotten to the more difficult questions of eligibility. The parties could only use the room, an auditorium inside the Boston NLRB regional office, until 5 p.m, Switzer said.

About 300 of the total challenged ballots have to do with eligibility issues, Switzer estimated. If both parties do not agree on whether or not certain students are eligible to vote—such as Ph.D. students who are not currently teaching—the NLRB will need to hold a hearing and decide.

For example, one group under challenge are first-year Ph.D. students who do not currently work and are thus not part of the bargaining unit explicitly laid out by the election agreement signed by the University and HGSU-UAW. The agreement stipulates that the bargaining unit includes graduate student teaching and research assistants and undergraduate teaching assistants.

Ph.D. student Beryl B. Cummings argued that it “makes absolutely no sense” if first-year graduate student votes are not counted. They typically do not work as teaching assistants or research assistants but are expected to do so during their time at Harvard. In the sciences, students move into labs in their second year, and students in the social sciences and humanities are required to teach in their third and fourth years.

“If a contract happens, we’re all bound by that contract,” Cummings said. “By definition as a first year you’re the person who is going to have to live under the union or not the union for the longest time.”

Klug said he is “excited” about moving forward with the count.

“We so rarely have a voice in these kinds of decisions at Harvard and that was really inspiring for all of us, and I’m really proud of the work we did to put this together,” Klug said.

Massachusetts politicians have also expressed their support. U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, along with four members of Congress from the Bay State, penned a statement Wednesday encouraging graduate students to vote in the union election, and cited October’s dining service worker strike as evidence of union success.

“Just last month, Harvard graduate students witnessed first-hand the benefits of collective bargaining when 750 union-represented Harvard cafeteria workers successfully negotiated for higher wages and more comprehensive health benefits,” the letter reads.

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

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