The National Labor Relations Board will begin a hearing Feb. 21 to address disagreement between Harvard union effort organizers and the University about which votes should be counted in the November election intended to decide whether eligible Harvard students form a union.
The hearing is the latest step in a complicated election process already prolonged by procedural delays and disputes about voter eligibility. Because an initial tally in December was too close to call, the NLRB must hold a hearing that could determine if the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers becomes a union.
Union organizers argue in their objection that the University provided an inaccurate list of voters, potentially preventing eligible students from participating in the election. In a more limited complaint, the University contends that an NLRB official incorrectly disqualified a single ballot from being counted.
If Walsh decides to consider the union organizers’ objections and the NLRB rules in favor of them, the NLRB could call for a re-vote on whether or not eligible students at Harvard can unionize.
Currently, 314 challenged ballots remain uncounted from the Nov. 16 and 17 election because of questions about who was eligible to vote in the election. The Dec. 22 vote count showed that 1,272 eligible students voted in favor of unionization, while 1,456 opposed it—a 184 vote margin. Since the margin of counted ballots is currently smaller than the number of challenged ballots that have not yet been tallied, the NLRB will decide whether the remaining challenged ballots should be counted.
According to a pre-election agreement between union organizers and the University, graduate students employed as teaching and research assistants as well as undergraduate teaching staff were eligible to vote in the election. The agreement also stipulated that graduate students who were not currently employed, but had held research or teaching positions for one semester in the past academic year could vote under challenge, as long as they were not in their final year.
Both the University and the union filed their objections to the unionization election on Dec. 29, seven days after the initial vote count. In its objection, Harvard charged that the NLRB “improperly voided a legitimately cast ballot by a proposed unit member because of a small note written on the ballot.”
According to the University’s brief, the ballot contained a “large black ‘X’” in the box marked “No” in response to whether Harvard students should unionize. The voter also wrote, “Hello counter! Have a good day” as well as a “smiley face” on the ballot, causing an NLRB official to invalidate it during the vote count. The University argued that despite the additional writing, the ballot should not have been disqualified because the intent of the voter to vote against unionization was clear.
The union organizers’ objections to the election focus on the voter list the University provided. In a statement, unionization organizers wrote, “Hundreds of student workers were left off the eligible voter list provided by the employer to the NLRB in advance of the election, leading to confusion about who was eligible to vote.”
Union organizers argued that Harvard’s decision to use “preferred names” instead of legal names prevented eligible voters from casting their ballots. “This omission of such a large number of potential voters – a substantially larger number than the margin of the preliminary vote count – prevented a fair, democratic election,” they wrote.
University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven defended the integrity of the election against the organizers’ allegations.
“The University and the HGSU-UAW reached an election agreement to define the eligible voters prior to the vote, and the University worked diligently to develop that voter list,” she wrote. “Our shared goal was and is to count every eligible vote.”
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.—Staff writer Phelan Yu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @phelanyu.
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