Undergraduates Divided Over Unionization

After Harvard announced it had agreed upon the date for a union election with graduate student union organizers, some undergraduates realized for the first time they will be involved in the process.

In addition to outlining the logistics for the Nov. 16 and 17 election—in which eligible students will vote for or against the creation of a union—the University and union organizers agreed on who will be included in the bargaining unit: graduate student teaching fellows and research assistants, as well as undergraduate teaching fellows.

“I heard about the graduate student unionization, but had no idea it would potentially involve undergrads,” Math course assistant Molly Moore ’17 said.

University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in an email that all eligible students “will be notified directly” once the National Labor Relations Board approves the agreement between the University and Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, the group of students behind the union effort.

Over the past month, union organizers have begun reaching out to undergraduates regarding the prospect of joining a union. Students said they have been approached in dining halls and have received emails regarding unionization.

“We go into Houses, we go into dining halls, we definitely try to reach people by email, we have a conversation over coffee—it’s basically whatever makes people feel comfortable and willing to engage in that dialogue,” Laila M. Smith ’18 said.

Smith said she is one of two undergraduate organizers for HGSU-UAW, and is a paid employee of the union effort. Smith said she was contacted by a graduate student about getting the word out to undergraduates.

One email sent by Samuel J. Potter ’20, in which he identified himself as an HGSU-UAW organizer, to a CS50 course assistant includes a link to an online authorization card that students can opt to sign. This is the method by which the National Labor Relations Board will determine if the union effort has enough support to call for the election in the first place. Since February, a majority of graduate students employed by the University have signed a card.

“Many undergraduates report feeling isolated in their work, and joining the undergraduate union allows you to meet and join in a community with your fellow workers,” the email read.

“The Undergraduate Council has yet to formally discuss unionization efforts,” UC Vice President Daniel V. Banks ’17 wrote in an email. “We'd welcome, however, conversation on how to best inform the many students voting in this election about the stakes and implications of unionization.”

Banks and some other undergraduates are opposed to unionization. Speaking from his personal opinion, Banks wrote that unionizing “would be detrimental to the educational experience of undergraduates.”

“Putting a middleman between professors and their mentees, that wedge being United Auto Workers, degrades the concept of mentorship so pivotal to academic life,” Banks wrote. “While I trust Teaching Fellows and others to make the judgement call and respect their right to unionize, the deleterious effects of student unionization weigh too heavily in my mind to support this effort.”

Moore said while she has not yet fully decided how to vote, she is leaning toward voting against unionization. Her primary concern, she said, is that the work students do across departments is too different to be adequately represented by a union, and that while beneficial in some settings, she believes a union could “potentially hurt our jobs” at Harvard.

Graduate students have raised a similar concern—that departmental needs vary too widely to be represented by a single union—at an information session organized by union advocates earlier in the semester. At the event, HGSU-UAW spokesperson and Ph.D. student Jack M. Nicoludis said a contract could be detailed and tailored enough to reflect widespread concerns, and that this has been done at public universities where unions are present.

Math course assistant Shira Li ’19 and Economics teaching fellow Daniel H. Nightingale ’18 are both unsure of whether or not they will vote, and said the stakes are not as high for undergraduates.

“I don’t really feel like this affects me that much—I mean I’m pretty content with the way that things are right now,” Nightingale said. “I mean I’m not a grad student; I don’t have to live off of the wages I get. I don’t have as many responsibilities as they do.”

Smith said her work revolves around spreading information to students, since many, she said, are “unfamiliar” with unionization. Most students she spoke with, she said, have been receptive and have signed authorization cards.

“A majority of all the conversations that I’ve had—a majority of people signed on right there and then. I think people are supportive and they get it,” she said.

UC Education Committee Chair Scott Ely ’18 wrote in an email that his committee is looking into unionization.

“We are excited undergraduates are being included in the voting, and we look forward to hearing more from the broader student body over the next few weeks before the vote,” Ely wrote.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at leah.yared@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

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