For the first time, graduate student union organizers and University administrators sat side-by-side in a question and answer-style information session on Wednesday to discuss student concerns regarding the upcoming union election.
About 20 students attended the forum at the Law School, hosted by the Board of Student Advisers and the Student Government. University attorney Elizabeth Seaman from the Office of the General Counsel, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean for Administration and Finance Allen Aloise, and Law School Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs Catherine Claypoole sat on one side of the table, with two graduate student union organizers at the other end.
“I’m really looking forward to this election. We’ve worked very hard to tell everyone that we can about it, and encourage everyone to vote, and we’re all looking forward to the result and moving forward from there,” Ph.D. student and union organizer Jonathon Booth said.
Aloise expressed concerns about unionization, citing his opinion that there is a more “efficient” way to improve student life than forming a collective bargaining unit.
“I think I share the passion that my co-panelists up here have about supporting students, advocating for students,” Aloise said. “We may disagree about the most efficient and the best way forward with that. It’s not clear to me that a labor framework or United Auto Workers is the most direct way of achieving our shared goals.”
Aloise also expressed other concerns, namely the broadness of the worker category in the bargaining unit, in which undergraduate students as well as graduate students across schools and departments are included.
“The embrace of such a broad bargaining unit would be something pretty unprecedented on campus at Harvard,” Aloise said.
But union organizer and Ph.D. student Abhinav Reddy said despite the very different positions students in the bargaining unit have—whether a graduate student or an undergraduate—they are all a part of a “shared community of interest.”
“The titles may be different, the departments may be different but at the end of the day, we’re students who are doing teaching and research work for the University, and we’re being compensated for that work,” Reddy said, adding that a contract could be tailored to meet the needs of the entire bargaining unit.
Booth said he believes a union is the best way to give students a voice in the process, and to improve working conditions across the University.
Another potential issue administrators discussed was the payment of union dues. Aloise expressed doubt that improved benefits would offset the cost of dues.
“There will [be] dues paid by students and the question is: what’s the benefit on the other end?” Aloise asked. “Will the benefits students otherwise wouldn’t have achieved offset that investment?”
Booth clarified that dues would not be collected until after a contract is created. The United Auto Workers requires a base 1.44 percent rate of union members’ pay, which can be increased if student workers in the union vote to do so.
“That doesn’t start tomorrow,” Booth said, referring to collecting dues. “It doesn’t start after the election; it only starts after a contract is approved and ratified.”
After the event, union organizer and Ph.D. student Cristina V. Groeger ’08 said she does not believe the administration is a neutral party in these discussions.
“I appreciated kind of hearing both sides, but I think the administration presents itself as wanting to encourage an open dialogue when other actions it has taken have shown they are very much opposed to the unionization effort,” Groeger said.University officials have maintained that they encourage an open dialogue regarding unionization, and want students to have all of the facts before voting.
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