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As a recent news article published in The Crimson detailed, a group of students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has begun an effort to unionize. Graduate student Elaine F. Stranahan, a leader of the effort, told The Crimson that the movement is focusing on issues like health care, dental care, housing, and the experience of working as a teaching fellow. A recent scrutiny published in The Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes Magazine focused on the TF experience at Harvard, and highlighted concerns about the stressful uncertainty of finding classes to teach when enrollment varies wildly during shopping week, and delays in receiving paychecks. An op-ed published in The Crimson last week by Frauke Hoss, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, expressed further concerns about the affordability of housing and childcare in Cambridge. Although Hoss is addressing the concerns of postdocs in her piece, her points are applicable to graduate students who serve as TFs as well. As a university that prides itself on the quality of its teaching and research, Harvard must not overlook the graduate students who make that teaching and research possible.
We believe a push for unionization is the most viable recourse for graduate students looking to address these issues. At the moment, Harvard has little incentive, beyond occasional pressure from academic departments, to respond to requests from graduate students seeking better teaching and working conditions. This movement has the potential to change that dynamic. Graduate students who are literally stressed to the point of breaking teeth are not as effective at conducting their own research or serving as TFs in undergraduate classes, and the threat of unionization offers a way for these vital members of Harvard’s community to advocate effectively for their unique set of concerns.
This campaign is not without precedent. Last year, an unrecognized union of graduate students at Yale organized a protest in favor of a more formal unionization process. At New York University, graduate assistants joined the United Automobile Workers union, becoming the only such union recognized by a private university. Graduate students at NYU achieved this success in spite of roadblocks like a 2004 decision from the National Labor Relations Board that held that graduate students and teaching assistants at Brown are legally students, not employees.
It is important to remember exactly which students are seeking to unionize. This effort is to improve the living and working conditions of students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who serve as TFs for classes at the College, who are paid $20,520 a year to teach two sections per semester, most in the hopes of eventually having a career in academia. Harvard must offer more support for these critical members of the community, whose teaching and research is crucial to undergraduates and faculty alike. Practically speaking, a movement for unionization is the first step toward achieving that support.
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