Harvard is gearing up for the National Labor Relations Board to announce a ruling that could require the University and other private colleges to recognize graduate student unions.
Two pending cases before the NLRB—a government organization that creates labor legislation and rules on labor disputes—could result in a decision to classify graduate students at private universities as employees. Currently, though organizers of Harvard’s student unionization movement have gathered support from a majority of graduate students employed by the University—meaning they have the numbers to call a union election— Harvard is not legally obligated to recognize a graduate student union.
Per organization policy, the NLRB does not comment on when it will release a decision, according to press secretary Jessica Kahanek. But one board member’s term ends in late August, and past members have said it is common practice to release decisions before a member leaves.
Union organizers at Harvard have said they expect the NLRB to support graduate student collective bargaining.
In late May, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and other state politicians called on Harvard to voluntarily recognize a graduate student union in a letter to University President Drew G. Faust—who last year voiced her opposition to unionization efforts.
“While we understand that Harvard may prefer to await a decision from the NLRB that would force the university to permit students to organize, we urge Harvard to offer this consideration to its teaching and research assistants now, as Harvard is clearly entitled to do,” read the letter signed by Warren, a former Law School professor, Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, U.S. Representative Katherine Clark, and U.S. Representative Michael E. Capuano.
In late July, University Provost Alan M. Garber and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng, who oppose unionization, published a letter and frequently asked questions online addressed directly to graduate students. Garber and Meng wrote that their goal is to “ensure, should an election be conducted, that you have the facts you need to make an informed decision.”
"Students have reached out to GSAS looking for more information about the unionization effort, and we worked this summer to develop a series of questions and answers that could aid their fact finding,” GSAS dean for administration and finance Allen Aloise wrote in an email.
The letter includes a link to a list of frequently asked questions about unionization, such as queries regarding paying dues and voting against unionization if a student already signed an authorization card.
Harvard’s list resembles a similar FAQ site published by the University of Chicago, which Aloise wrote “was useful in developing Harvard’s content.” According to Aloise, both the letter and FAQs were posted online by the Provost’s Office because students across Harvard’s graduate schools could be part of a collective bargaining unit.
Members of the union movement, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the letter and FAQs.
Other universities have also taken action ahead of the NLRB decision. In May, for example, Cornell reached an agreement with organizers outlining a path forward if the NLRB requires private universities to allow for collective bargaining; Harvard has not done so. While Cornell did not agree to voluntarily recognize the union, officials established channels for administrators to communicate with students about unionization, and guidelines for a union election in the event that the NLRB decides graduate students are employees under the law.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.
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