Harvard Student Unionization Vote Remains Too Close To Call

The National Labor Relations Board will hold hearings to determine the results of Harvard's student unionization vote.

UPDATED: December 22, 2016 at 8:48 p.m.

The National Labor Relations Board will hold hearings to determine the fate of Harvard’s student unionization effort after a vote count Thursday morning showed that the election—which currently indicates that more eligible students voted against forming a union than for it—remains too close to call.

According to NLRB deputy regional attorney Robert P. Redbord, 1,456 students voted “no” to forming a union, compared to 1,272 voting yes.

Unionization Vote
A posted sign directs voters to the polling place for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW unionization vote in Phillips Brooks House last month.
But Redbord said 314 ballots remain under challenge. Challenged ballots were set aside and not initially included in the count because of questions about the voters’ eligibility. Because these ballots could numerically swing the election, the final result could not be determined Thursday.

“The vote is so close that the number of challenges could determine the outcome of the election,” Redbord said.


Thousands of eligible graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants voted in the historic Nov. 16 and 17 election—the first union election on a private university campus since the August NLRB decision recognized these students as workers under the law.

About 1,200 ballots were challenged during the election, delaying the vote count for several weeks. University officials and graduate student organizers have been sifting through those ballots one by one to determine eligibility, and had worked through about 900 thus far.

The NLRB will hold hearings to decide which challenged ballots should be counted, and in turn, whether eligible students at Harvard can form a union.

Per NLRB rules, the regional board’s hearing will begin in approximately 21 days.

In a post on the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers Facebook page, union organizers said they were disappointed with the the election’s inconclusive results.

“While this news is not what we were hoping for today, our work is not over,” the post reads, adding that organizers would persevere in their efforts to create a student union at Harvard despite the vote’s outcome.

But opponents of the unionization effort were heartened by Thursday’s vote count. Jae Hyeon Lee, a Ph.D. student who has been a vocal opponent of unionization and created the Facebook page “Against HGSU-UAW,” said he was surprised by the result.

“I was expecting the vote to go in favor of the union supporters,” Lee said. “It was a nice surprise to see that a majority of students voted against the union.”

Leading up to Thursday’s count, union organizers and Harvard officials had continuously disagreed about the eligibility of some student voters. In particular, the two parties argued about whether graduate students who are not currently teaching, but will teach in the future, could vote and about the eligibility of votes cast by students whose names on the ballots did not match their names on their IDs.

Redbord called the weeks-long delay before today’s count “quite unusual.” The NLRB has conducted larger elections, he said, but this delay was “a function of...the number of people that were challenged.”

Harvard was the first private university to hold a vote on student unionization since the NLRB’s decision, but the second to count ballots. Earlier this month, Columbia students decisively approved unionization by a vote of 1,602 to 623.

Harvard’s election had nearly double the number of challenged ballots as Columbia’s, and more students turned out to vote at Harvard. Including challenged ballots, 3,042 students voted in Harvard’s election, compared to 2,872 in Columbia’s.

After its election, Columbia filed objections to the vote, arguing that members of the union interfered with voters accessing polls, board agents conducted themselves improperly, and issues of voter eligibility as reasons to scrap the results and hold a new election.

In a statement, Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul Curran wrote that “this election underscores the importance of the University’s commitment to continuing to improve the experience of our students.”

If the hearings next month result in the formation of the union, an estimated 3,500 graduate and undergraduate students would be included in the bargaining unit—about 2,000 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1,000 from other graduate schools, and 500 undergraduates.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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


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