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Student Union Is No Magic Bullet

By Jae Hyun Lee

Before I quit as an organizer for the Harvard Graduate Student Union-UAW in late September, I heard consistent support of the union by graduate students. These supporters believe that the proposed student union will have many a positive impact on the Harvard community. I am skeptical.

My skepticism about the union derives not from a principle regarding student unionization per se, but from an objection against some of the main goals of the HGSU-UAW and the way the group has chosen to organize students at Harvard. There are still many unanswered questions and unvalidated assumptions about the proposed union that need to be addressed before we can make an informed decision on whether to support it.

As Julie Kushner, the director of the United Auto Workers’ region 9A, made clear at a town hall event last week, one primary goal of the movement is to secure greater benefits for graduate students. The HGSU-UAW’s organizing work is replete with populist rhetoric that paints Harvard as a powerful employer who exploits graduate students in order to maximize its gains; graduate students are engaged in a class warfare with the rich, greedy University—and it is only fair to claim a bigger slice of the pie they help produce.

Is this a fair indictment of the University? Graduate students at Harvard are already reasonably compensated and to claim otherwise is lacking in perspective. When judging whether students receive a fair compensation for their work, we must take into account various forms of benefits the University provides. Based on a brief summary of support Harvard provides to graduate students, I infer that on average a graduate student receives about $60,000 per year in various forms of compensation and benefits including tuition remission, health insurance, and stipends. This is much higher than the U.S. median personal income of $28,155 per year. If two graduate students decided to form a household, then their combined compensation would place them in the top 15 percent household income bracket in the U.S.

True, graduate student stipends may not be enough to afford a comfortable lifestyle, or to cover essential dependent health care or childcare costs. However, the University provides financial support in various other forms, without which many students would not have been able to afford to attend the school in the first place or would graduate with a staggering amount of debt. It is also unclear whether the University should carry all the burdens that stem from the failures of the nation to provide affordable childcare, health care, and housing. Going to graduate school is not a necessity but a personal choice and students should bear the responsibility for their choices.

I have been particularly disquieted by a seemingly prevalent oversimplification in the organizing work of the HGSU-UAW. Many issues the organization hopes to address, such as timely payment and protection against discrimination and unreasonable workload, are complicated problems. Without any clear vision or plan based on objective research and well-reasoned arguments provided by the HGSU-UAW, any assertions that the union can help address these and other problems are just empty rhetoric, or undeliverable promises made in order to win support. Given that students if unionized will be paying 1.44 percent of gross income (at least $385, given the $26,800 stipend) as union dues, they deserve to know how the union will help them individually in detail.

I am under no illusion that the University does everything well. In particular, the leaders may not properly address educational problems graduate students face—such as a lack of adequate support for students’ professional development or sufficient mentoring necessary for timely graduation—because doing so often provides little concrete rewards. In theory, a graduate student union can resist such tendencies through the effective use of its collective bargaining power and economic weapons such as strike.

However, as a labor organization, a student union is always in danger of narrowly focusing on economic issues and making demands that cannot be easily met by the University. The administrators have an obligation to manage the University’s budget wisely by balancing a myriad of competing demands from various stakeholders while maintaining the organization’s financial health. It would be inappropriate for the administrators to concede to every demand of students, especially if they are based on questionable grounds.

Simply having a contract will not solve many problems graduate students face at Harvard. We need less rhetoric and more reasoned conversations based on research and data. I will continue to ask more questions about the HGSU-UAW, and I hope you will too.

Jae Hyeon Lee is a third-year Ph.D. student in physics at Harvard.

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