The rejection of unionization by Harvard graduate students after last November’s election was surprising to many, to say the least. Though the remaining 313 challenged ballots are being resolved at National Labor Relations Board hearings that began on February 22, the union’s chance of winning the election are quite slim, as it would have to gain additional 249 “yes” votes out of unresolved 313 ballots to secure a victory.
The near-certain outcome of the election is an expensive loss to the UAW, which invested a large sum of money in its campaign to organize Harvard graduate students by hiring graduate students on campus and as well as full-time UAW staff members. Understandably, the union wants to exhaust all legal options before accepting the outcome, and hence filed an objection to the election with the NLRB, which could result in a revote. However, after having carefully examined the union’s objection, I believe the election result should stand.
In its brief petition filed with NLRB, the union argues that a revote is warranted because the University failed to provide an accurate list of all eligible voters. The petition notes that the University conceded that 383 students who were not included in the voter list and voted under challenge were in fact eligible members of the proposed bargaining unit and therefore should have been included in the list. It also notes that the preferred names, rather than the official names, of 101 eligible voters were provided on the list, which forced them to vote under challenge.
The petition as a whole, however, fails to provide any convincing, substantial arguments or evidence of how these facts would have precluded a fair election. I argue that if almost all students were aware of the election, received communication from both the union and the University about the potential advantages and disadvantages of having a union, and were well-informed of the fact they could cast ballots under challenge—even if their names did not appear or did not appear correctly on the eligibility list—the union’s objection to the outcome based on errors in the eligibility list would have no merit. So far, this seems to be the case.
Leading up to the election, students were inundated with information regarding the election from both the union and the University, as documented in a
letter addressed to the Regional Director of the NLRB’s Boston Office, which was drafted by several students who did not want another election. Students were informed by both the union and the University that they could cast votes under challenge even if their names did not appear correctly on the eligibility list or did not appear at all. Indeed, all ballots cast under challenge due to “preferred” versus “official” names issue have been satisfactorily resolved.
Recently, I reached out to the HGSU-UAW to understand better the basis of their objection. I asked them whether they had a list of documented cases of students who were unable to vote because they were unaware of the election. I also asked whether the union has any evidence of the University intentionally providing an incomplete list in order to bias the election’s outcome. The union was unable to provide any such evidence.
It is important to note that the University has strong disincentive against engaging in activities that would obstruct a fair election. It greatly values its reputation and would not take any risk of tarnishing it by committing an unfair labor practice. Furthermore, given its position, the University would have wanted as many eligible students as possible to have voted since that would diminish the chances of the election outcome being disproportionately affected by a vocal minority.
The truth of the matter is that this election was rushed. The University was given only one week to produce the eligibility list of more than three thousand voters based on a bargaining unit definition that was extremely broad. Despite possessing an extensive internal database of students with a breakdown by departments, the union did not bring up any serious issue of missing voters prior to the election.
Furthermore, it appears that rather than addressing complex questions of who exactly should be eligible to vote, the union opted to have an election as soon as possible, perhaps thinking it would give them a strategic advantage. For example, the union did not address the question of whether the votes of many of the first and second year students should be counted even though they are the ones who would be most affected by the election outcome. The great majority of their ballots were not counted. So much for an organization that touts its commitment to democracy.
Issues that union supporters are concerned about such as mental health, child care, and workload protection are important issues that we community as a whole should continually address. The union lost the election not because of some yet unproven wrongdoing by the University, but because it failed to make a proposal that convinced a majority of graduate students at Harvard. The union should accept the democratic outcome of the election and move on. They can try again next year, hopefully with more sensible, practical approaches to problems that graduate students can all sign on to.
Jae Hyeon Lee is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in physics at Harvard.