GSAS Dean Reaffirms Opposition to Grad Student Union

Responding to students’ efforts to unionize, dean tells colleagues to discuss the movement, but avoid hostility

In response to increased inquiries from faculty members about graduate students’ ongoing push to unionize, administrators at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences issued guidelines on how their colleagues should respond to the movement—welcoming discussion but discouraging hostility.

The student unionization effort, which follows similar movements at peer schools and went public last spring, is gaining steam: Organizers are busy recruiting and recently partnered with the United Auto Workers Union to solicit signatures from potential members.

Harvard, though, has no obligation to recognize a union of graduate students, and University President Drew G. Faust has made her opposition to the effort clear, arguing that unionization “changes a mentoring relationship between faculty and students into a labor relationship.”

GSAS Dean Xiao-Li Meng suggested that other top administrators agree with Faust in a message on Wednesday to the deans and chief administrators of Harvard’s schools and various departmental directors of graduate studies.

The message, signed by Meng, addressed the unionization effort directly, acknowledging students’ involvement with the United Auto Workers and affirming Faust’s earlier comments against it. Meng writes, though, “that there must be a full and open conversation on unionization” with students and that administrators must communicate the benefits Harvard provides them.


The leaders of the student effort argue that they are Harvard employees and deserve better benefits, which they maintain they can achieve through collective bargaining.

According to Allen Aloise, GSAS’s dean for administration and finance, administrators disseminated Meng’s message with a document advising recipients on how to discuss the ongoing movement with student supporters.

The document is explicit in discouraging employees from being hostile toward prospective union members. Specifically, the guidelines say that faculty and administrators should not “threaten” students who support the union with “adverse consequences,” “engage in surveillance of union meetings,” or “interrogate” students about union activity.

It also, however, encourages them to “explain the disadvantages of union membership,” such as the prospect of annual dues. It also suggests that faculty and administrators should provide students with information about existing benefits extended to graduate students, the process of collective bargaining, and corrections for “inaccurate or misleading union statements and campaign materials.”

The document also briefly alludes to the possibility that the United Auto Workers Union, as a “new political entity,” could add “its own agenda to existing relations” between Harvard faculty and students.

Julie Kushner, the director of the United Auto Workers’ region 9A, responded to that claim at an event Thursday hosted by student organizers of the unionization effort, which is calling itself the Harvard Graduate Student Union.

"We are Workers"
Harvard graduate students seeking to unionize hosted an event on Thursday in the Center for Government and International Studies South building.

“One of the charges that is made by the dean is that the UAW has an agenda. And I just want to tell you we do—we have an agenda,” Kushner said at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies South building. “Our agenda is to improve conditions and create standards for graduate student workers on campuses across the United States so they are paid a living wage.”

The United Auto Workers Union represents graduate student unions and movements at peer schools such as Columbia and New York University.

Some graduate students involved in the unionization effort responded positively to the letter.

“We are glad they are talking about open discussions between students and faculty because that is what we are asking for,” said John M. Nicoludis, a graduate student in the Chemistry department. “We are asking for a voice, and it sounds like we are being heard.”

Given administrators’ unwillingness to recognize their effort, Harvard graduate students’ ability to unionize may depend on the National Labor Relations Board. In 2004, the body ruled that private universities do not have to recognize graduate student unions, but it could overturn that decision in an ongoing case at Columbia.

In his message, Meng acknowledges that the NLRB could rule that graduate students must be considered university employees. The guidelines laid out in the accompanying document, then, appear written to protect Harvard if that happens: They assume that the NLRB “would find that graduate students who perform work for the University are employees,” the document says.

Aloise reaffirmed administrators’ stance against a student union in a statement on Thursday, writing that graduate students are important to scholarship on campus, but that “we believe the University’s relationship with its graduate students is, and should remain, fundamentally an academic relationship.”

—Staff writer William C. Skinner contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jillsteinman.


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