In the lead-up to today and tomorrow’s vote on graduate student unionization, supporters and detractors have presented many arguments about the benefits and costs of unionization. Anti-union documents (like the University FAQ, or “A Critical Approach”) tend to present the union as a nebulous specter of “intrusion” into our lives, asking us to pay dues, talk to organizers, attend rallies, and possibly go on strike for uncertain improvements. Though union supporters have already disputed the factual claims in these arguments, I’d like to explain my support for a union at a more general level. I do think we should be paid more for our work—and with a union, I think we would be—but it’s about more than that. Having a union is about making our workplace democratic.
Democracy means being organized so that you can have a collective voice. That means participating in organizations like political parties, activist groups, or unions. Organizations need money to function, and we shouldn’t begrudge them our dues for the same reason the University should be happy to pay graduate students—we work for the University, and the union works for us.
Democracy means having lots of conversations. About money, about how much you’re being asked to work, about how people treat you, about the right direction for higher education. Organizers of the union want to talk to you so they can understand your point of view, so your individual voice doesn’t get left out of the collective voice. They’re not just trying to badger you into doing one thing or another.
Democracy means taking action sometimes. That might mean striking. There are many ways of limiting strikes to minimize or eliminate disruptions to people’s research, but at the end of the day, if something needs doing, people need to be in the streets demanding it. People need to be calling their friends to join them. People need to be writing letters and signing petitions and going to meetings. Not everyone can do this all the time—that’s why unions pay staff organizers—but everyone should be able to do it some of the time. And if no one has that time to spare because they have too much work, that’s a problem we really should be up in arms about.
Democracy means caring about other people. It means being willing to lend your energy, or at least your vote, to help someone struggling in another department, just as it means caring about people of other genders or races or religions. This doesn’t mean leveling all graduate students’ pay. But it might mean calling on the University to curb the growth of administration, or to pay its highest officers less. It might also mean lobbying state and federal government to give more money to higher education. It does not have to mean fighting with administrators or our fellows; we can all work collectively to fight for what’s best for the University as a whole.
Democracy means struggling for things you might not get. Every anti-union argument I’ve seen emphasizes the uncertainty of the future. The University’s FAQ notes that “there is no way of knowing now whether or how current stipends and benefits might change.” In truth, the future is always uncertain, and politics even more so. Just look at last week’s vote returns. But not having a union is like not having elections at all (we certainly didn’t elect Drew Faust). It’s true there’s the Graduate Student Council, and some of our representatives are elected. But having been on the GSC executive board for three years, I can tell you that administrators were never more open to change than after they found out students were organizing a union. They know full well we have more power together than individually.
When I read anti-union material, what I hear is that we should be content to keep our heads down and take the money Harvard gives us. Of course I’d like to see a Harvard that guarantees us a living wage year-round the whole time we’re here. But I want more than a dollar amount on an offer letter. I want to see a Harvard where the President and Overseers meet with graduate student representatives regularly. I want to see a Harvard where folks are invested in each others’ well-being and work to protect each other from mistreatment and discrimination. I don’t think we can have any of these things unless we work together to make sure Harvard hears us clearly.
Opponents of a union often say they want to “work with Harvard, not against it.” I think that means a union is exactly what they want.
John R. Gee is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the History department.
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