Graduate Union Organizers Across Universities Discuss Efforts

Graduate student union organizers from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Connecticut discussed similarities in unionization efforts across public and private campuses in an event last week at Harvard Law School.

A common theme connecting the speeches was the amount of effort that goes into organizing, namely union card campaigns; members of a group of Harvard graduate students pushing for unionization have continued their push for student signatures.

The speakers from Columbia, Yale, and UConn said they had garnered support for their campaigns from the majority of their graduate student populations.

With regard to organizing at universities with very distinct graduate schools, Ashraf Ahmed, a graduate student at Columbia and a leader of its unionization movement, drew a parallel between Harvard and Columbia.

“Columbia is a highly balkanized place. There are two major campuses, and there are difficulties organizing with places that are miles apart,” Ahmed said.

Aaron T. Bekemeyer, a graduate student involved in the Harvard unionization effort, said Harvard organizers have “walked all over the University,” from the Center for Astrophysics to the Longwood medical campus, in order to drum up support for the movement.

“Part of this was just about creating and strengthening a community that was often difficult to find because people felt like they were isolated by their department or by their program,” Bekemeyer said.

Charles Decker, an organizer for Yale’s graduate student unionization movement, said graduate students there embarked on a photo campaign in the fall of 2014 to prove to administrators that they are committed to the cause.

“Signing a statement saying that ‘yes I want a union’ is a powerful statement. Taking your photo and becoming a public member of this union drive I think is a more powerful statement,” Decker said.

At the event, Law professor Karl E. Klare of Northeastern University provided a legal background, referencing the upcoming decision by the National Labor Relations Board on whether or not graduate students are employees.The event was organized by the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

“People who are excluded from the definition of employee give every employer in the United States an incentive to escape social responsibility, escape the law, escape union obligations,” Klare said.

While all speakers said they were confident that the NLRB will decide that graduate students are workers, Bekemeyer said the mentality of the unionization effort does not rely on the decision.

“We didn’t need the law to tell us that we’re workers,” Bekemeyer said. “We knew that and have known that in spite of the law.”

Ahmed said that teaching fellows are chief examples of workers. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Ahmed said TFs and teaching assistants were a major part of his College academic life, and their work often extended beyond section.

“If there was a problem set that I was having difficulty with, or if there were particular readings that I was actually interested in and wanted to talk about further, it was my TAs that I turned to,” Ashraf said. “I remember almost every TA I’ve ever had.”

Looking ahead, Bekemeyer said that efforts to organize will continue because an NLRB decision in favor of the HGSU-UAW—the organization is affiliated with the United Auto Workers Unionwould not automatically result in a union.

“It doesn’t happen on its own. While the law both enables and constrains us in certain ways, it’s up to us to act,” Bekemeyer said.

He added that as the youngest unionization campaign on the panel, the HGSU-UAW will continue to look to its peer institutions for guidance.

“In a lot of ways we have looked to the work of those who’ve come before us and are still fighting,” Bekemeyer said. “We’ve been inspired by those grad workers and we’ve learned a lot from what they’ve done.”

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

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