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With Historic Union Election Looming, All Eyes on Harvard

By Leah S. Yared, Crimson Staff Writer

When polls open on Nov. 16 and 17 for the graduate student union election, Harvard undergraduates casting their ballots might not realize they are making history.

No other union representing academic workers at a private university has ever included undergraduates in its election vote, to the knowledge of Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon who works at the university's Labor Education and Research Center and has been an organizer for several unions.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers began employing undergraduate organizers this semester, paying them for their efforts to spread the word about unionization to undergraduates, some of whom had not heard about the National Labor Relations Board decision in August that paved the way for this election.

Samuel J. Potter ’20 said he came into his first semester at Harvard knowing he wanted to be involved in labor activism. Potter said members of his family have been active in unions for generations, and coming from Idaho, which he called an “arbitrarily anti-union state,” he saw his chance in Cambridge.

Potter said he helped poster for the Student Labor Action Movement and then showed up to a meeting, where HGSU-UAW organizers asked if anyone was interested in helping the movement.

“And here I am,” Potter said.

As the election date nears, both graduate and undergraduate organizers have upped the ante—spreading the word about the election in dining halls, knocking on dorm room doors, holding more information sessions, and calling eligible students directly.


“The election is unprecedented in several ways,” Harvard’s Associate Director of Labor and Employee Relations Erica F. Crystal wrote in an email, citing the fact that this is the first election since the NLRB’s August decision recognizing certain graduate and undergraduate students as workers, as well as the broad category of workers belonging to the potential bargaining unit.

“Although this is a large election with more than one location, the NLRB is used to handling these kinds of election,” she wrote. Crystal, who said she formerly worked for the NLRB, added that the Board has been holding elections in the private sector for more than 70 years.

NLRB board agents will control the election, with “an equal number” of HGSU-UAW and Harvard observers “to witness the election and assist the board agent,” Crystal wrote. Board agents may even decide to cover the windows of an election site if they think it compromises voter privacy.

According to Crystal, students will be assigned to vote at one of the three locations—Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard, the Dental School, and the Business School—as required by the NLRB.

“That means that College students are assigned to vote in Cambridge; professional degree students will vote in the location of their school; and GSAS students are assigned based on their program,” Crystal wrote, referring to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Ph.D. student Andrea Kriz, who is based out of Massachusetts General Hospital, raised concerns about the inconvenience of voting locations. She said some of her colleagues may have to travel about 40 minutes on the T to get to their assigned location, and added that some students may have already left for Thanksgiving break.

“There is no absentee ballot system, so if you’re not on campus that day you just can’t vote,” Kriz said, adding that she personally still has not received notification of her assigned location.

Crystal wrote that it is possible to vote “out of location,” but that the votes will be “subject to challenge.”

The NLRB’s challenge rules allow any person to vote, and for officials to decide on the validity of a ballot after the election if a ballot has been challenged. For example, if a challenge is raised about someone casting multiple ballots, board agents set aside the ballot and determine if a student voted once, at which time the ballots in question get placed back in the pile of ballots to be counted.

The agreement signed Oct. 18 by union organizers and Harvard stated that the only worker category the groups could not agree upon was “doctoral students who have been employed in the bargaining unit for at least one semester during the past academic year and who are not currently in their Dissertation Completion year (or final year of their program).” These are students who are currently not on the payroll for being a teaching or research assistant, but who have worked in that capacity and might requalify to be protected under the bargaining unit in the future.

The parties agreed that these students will vote under challenge. Per NLRB rules, these ballots will be marked and set aside in envelopes, and at the end of voting, deposited into a locked safe. Based on the numbers, if the challenge ballots could sway the election one way or the other, a hearing will be necessary to decide the outcome.


Other universities are taking notice of Harvard’s historic election.

Barbara A. Knuth, Cornell’s senior vice provost and dean of its Graduate School, wrote in an email that Cornell is paying attention to whats going on at Harvard.

“We’ll be watching Harvard particularly regarding their community’s participation of eligible voters in the election process,” Knuth wrote. “Should there be an election at Cornell, our primary concern is encouraging all eligible voters to exercise their right to vote on the question of union representation given its importance for the context of graduate education at Cornell.”

Two graduate student union organizers at the University of Chicago, Cody Jones and Claudio Sansone, said their union effort is also paying attention to Harvard. Sansone said they are currently in the middle of an authorization card campaign, but that their union effort has been around for nine years.

“We have a little bit more to do. It’ll take a little bit longer, but we’re still thinking of going ahead quite fast as well, just not as fast as Harvard,” Sansone said.

John T. Trumpbour, a research associate at Harvard’s Office of Labor and Worklife, said at this time, he cannot predict with confidence how the vote will go.

“I wish we had exit polling for our graduate students,” he said with a laugh.

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