A Look Back: Harvard Grad Students’ Decision to Join with UAW

​If the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers wins the vote to form a recognized union, it will be the culmination of more than a year of active organizing. But this is not the first graduate student union effort Harvard has seen.
By Leah S. Yared

Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. By Jessica M. Wang

UPDATED: December 14, 2016 at 3:49 p.m.

If the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers wins the vote to form a recognized union, their efforts will be the culmination of more than a year of active organizing with the United Auto Workers.

The UAW is an international union representing workers from jobs in factories, hospitals, and college campuses. It represents more than 35,000 student assistants at universities across the country, UAW Region 9A Director Julie Kushner wrote in an email— “more graduate students than any other union in the country” and about nine percent of its total active membership.

Although the UAW has led the way in student unionization at private universities, with unions established at Columbia and New York University, some people have raised concerns in the past about maintaining transparency and democratic governance within Harvard’s union effort, which joined with the UAW in September 2015.

Eligible teaching and research assistants voted several weeks ago on whether the HGSU-UAW should be authorized as a union. Columbia had its union election days ago and an overwhelming majority voted in favor of unionization. Students at Harvard are still waiting for the count to begin later this month, after officials and organizers finish sifting through nearly 1,000 challenge ballots.

In 2015, the effort that was then known only as the Harvard Graduate Students Union formed an “affiliation committee” designed to study international unions and recommend with which union the group should affiliate. According to the HGSU-UAW website, the committee reached out to UNITE HERE, Service Employees International Union, and American Federation of Teachers, in addition to the UAW.

This was not the first time that Harvard graduate students were in talks with the UAW. According to internal documents obtained by The Crimson, students had communicated with the union about affiliating in the early 2000s, but they did not reach an agreement.

An affiliation committee document from the summer of 2015 listed “issues to discuss with the UAW,” including questions about the resources the UAW would provide and what the governance structure a potential union would take should they chose to affiliate. One question asked who would hold paid organizers accountable, and who would hire and fire them.

After having conversations with the UAW that summer, the group moved forward with plans to affiliate. Members of the affiliation committee as well as student organizers—then called “coordinators”—voted unanimously to “recommend that the members of HGSU vote yes to starting an authorization card drive with the UAW to pursue recognition, collective bargaining, and a contract.”

The affiliation committee document cites legal protection, financial resources, and experience in graduate student organizing as reasons for selecting the UAW.

Comparative Literature Ph.D. student Ania Aizman wrote in an email that she was part of the union’s initial organizing in 2012, and continued her efforts for a few years. Between 2012 and 2014, she estimated “a hundred people were involved as organizers,” and that membership “ballooned” during the summer of 2015.

Before the affiliation vote, Aizman said a newly formed “democracy caucus” within the union effort produced a statement asking to “continue discussions with the UAW.” The document states that its authors support affiliating with the UAW, but wanted to provide a list of “downsides” and solutions to a possible partnership.

“We lose the right to structure our organization horizontally and democratically, as the UAW constitution requires a specific hierarchical leadership structure for all locals,” the document lists as a potential downside.

Union effort organizer and Ph.D. student Sam Klug was involved in conversations about unionization before 2015, but said he got more involved that spring.

“[Organizers] came in with a strong sense that the UAW was the clear choice, and their points, which I agree with, are that the UAW has a great deal of experience in higher education,” Klug said. “They were working already with Columbia; that was pushing the case that led to the NLRB decision.”

Klug said hundreds of students in the HGSU participated in a vote in September 2015. More than 90 percent supported affiliating with the UAW, he said.

“The amount of input we got and the large number of people who participated in making the decision to move forward with the UAW was unusual for a unionization effort at that stage, and I think really a sign of our commitment to democracy and to listening to student workers,” Klug said.


About a week before the vote, organizers circulated a proposal to organize with the UAW, which made clear that graduate students would remain in control of the union effort.

“We are the union, and we can make it what we want. The UAW staff organizers will provide the necessary support and guidance to help us win,” the document states.

However, some graduate students were concerned that the structure and hierarchy created by affiliating with the UAW would lead to less transparency.

Aizman supports unionization and hopes that the HGSU-UAW will be authorized later this month, but said she left the union effort because of those concerns. Aizman wrote in an email that she helped create a “draft for internal governance,” a proposal for a constitution which outlined a potential structure and decision-making process.

Klug declined to comment on a "draft for internal governance.” But according to Aizman, the draft was ultimately unsuccessful with the union after a series of closed-door meetings.

She also wrote that coordinators created a “provisional set of principles” for organizing as a compromise, but according to Aizman, the union also did not adopt this proposal.

She wrote that if the original proposal had been rejected in a “direct, reasonable process,” or even if there had been open discussion on the provisional compromise, she would have stayed.

“The HGSU-UAW quashed dissent in the name of a unified message, gave up internal governance in the name of efficiency,” Aizman wrote in an email. “But I remain completely supportive of the broader project to unionize.”

“I really admire the work of graduate students in other universities who made their UAW-organized unions more horizontal and more transparent – so I think it is possible to work with the UAW,” she added.

Klug maintained that transparency is “extremely important to our union.”

“I think what transparency comes from is from listening to the concerns of student workers and trying to address those, and keeping lines of communication open between people across this complicated and diverse campus,” Klug said.

Todd Vachon, the president of the University of Connecticut’s graduate student union, said their union has remained democratic and transparent since affiliating with the UAW, and has benefitted from the UAW’s guidance and resources.

“Honestly, the UAW structure has not really changed our leadership structure much,” Vachon wrote in an email. “The ultimate power still resides with the membership who votes on all decisions at monthly meetings.”

Klug said constitutions are made after unions are formed, and that the HGSU-UAW will draft its own bylaws to govern its operations, and “vote on those as a local.”

“Hopefully once the ballots are counted and our union is recognized, we would create a bylaws committee that would be responsible for drafting up bylaws, which then all members would be able to vote on,” Klug said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification.

CLARIFICATION: December 14, 2016

A previous version of this article indicated that Ania Aizman, a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature, left the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers after the union rejected a “draft for internal governance.” To clarify, she left the union because of the process through which the union effort did not adopt the “draft for internal governance” and a related “provisional set of principles.”