Against Neutrality: Graduate Student Unionization and Democracy

On April 6, at the general meeting of the Graduate Student Council, student representatives from graduate programs across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will vote on a resolution that condemns the University leaders for filing an amicus brief against graduate student unionization. The resolution proposed by John Gee, the Vice President of the GSC, states “Whereas graduate student workers at Harvard ought to decide freely and democratically whether they wish to unionize and bargain collectively…this [filing of the amicus brief] by Harvard interferes with the democratic rights of graduate student workers....” I believe the democratic rationale provided for the resolution is misguided and that it should be voted down.

The resolution’s underlying premise claims that the principle of democracy suggests students should be left alone to decide whether to unionize among themselves. This view is the basis of the union organizers’ efforts to solicit neutrality agreements from the University faculty and administrators. This argument is, however, based on a narrow conception of democracy and is therefore an insufficient ground on which to deliberate on the important issue of student unionization.

Democracy is a political instrument for the discovery of truth regarding justice and the good life. It requires active participation of informed citizens and political institutions to facilitate debate among them. Citizens must engage in good faith with one another and deliberate on issues that concern the public using reason and the best available evidence presented to them. Decision by majority is one important feature of democracy but not its sole defining character.

This vision of democracy forces us to confront many problematic features of the current unionization movement. First, we lack a body of students who are sufficiently informed about the specifics of the unionization necessary to deliberate properly on the issue. As a former organizer of the movement, I experienced firsthand how easy it could be to gain support from individual students, who often uncritically accepted without a moment of reflection on the suggestion that a union could significantly improve the experiences of graduate students. Such behavior is not conducive to forming an informed citizenry.

Unfortunately, this trend has not changed since the start of the organizing campaign. Too many still base their decisions to support or oppose on their ideological leanings without inquiring what issues a union can appropriately address and how. This tendency has been encouraged by the union organizers, who put a far greater priority on the rapid expansion of the organization’s membership over the education of its members on substantive matters. Despite its recent public celebration of reaching majority support as suggested by the number of graduate students who signed the authorization cards, the union supporters cannot claim a democratic victory.

More concerning is the union organizers’ efforts to suppress meaningful conversations among community members necessary for an effective deliberation on the important issue under the pretext of neutrality. The University faculty and administrators have legitimate roles to play in the conversation on unionization since the proposed student union will potentially impact the wider University community significantly. Along with students, they should actively engage in the decision making process. Asking them to remain neutral is asking them to abandon their duty as democratic citizens of the University to act according to what they believe to be in the best interests of the community as a whole.

One way the University leaders have chosen to partake in the conversation is by jointly filing the aforementioned brief with the National Labor Relations Board, the governing authority on labor disputes in this nation, before which contending parties argue for their positions on questions such as whether graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize. By filing the brief, the University is following the rules and procedures of the nation’s democratic system designed to deliberate on the present issue.

Union supporters should perceive the filing of the brief not as a threat to their right to organize but as an opportunity to engage the University leaders’ arguments. For instance, Section I(d) of the brief states “Because the Amici institutions do not measure teaching and research by graduate assistants in commercial or economic terms, the model of traditional collective bargaining cannot apply to them” and makes a strong case for the proposition. Union supporters should produce compelling arguments that can trump the logic behind the University’s arguments, like this one, rather than attempting to silence the University’s voice.

In addition, University leaders so far have not resorted to ungentlemanly tactics in advancing their position such as unfairly disciplining union organizers. They have acted in ways consistent with the democratic vision and have even made genuine efforts to improve the experiences of graduate students in areas that are purported sources of discontent and conflicts. For this, the leaders deserve our respect.

I am against Vice President Gee’s resolution because it is inconsistent with the requirements of democracy in its truer sense, as I have attempted to illustrate above. For this reason, I ask that the GSC representatives vote against it.


Jae Hyeon Lee is a third year Physics PhD student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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