Union Effort Gains Majority Support from Grad Student Employees

UPDATED: February 25, 2016, at 1:45 p.m.

Organizers of a graduate student unionization effort confirmed the campaign has reached a critical point: a majority of graduate students employed by the University have signed authorization cards in support of unionization, which satisfies the threshold to call an election to form a union.

“I know that we’re above 60 percent, and that majority is growing,” Chamith Y. Fonseka, a union organizer and PhD student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, said.

A student who signs the card authorizes the movement, called the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers, “to represent me for the purposes of collective bargaining with my employer over wages, benefits, working conditions and other terms and conditions of employment.”

Graduate Student Council Meeting
At a meeting of the Graduate Student Council in the fall, students discussed whether to support graduate students part of a movement to unionize

The card includes the question: “What matters most to you as a graduate worker at Harvard?” Signers can check off options including “childcare/parental leave,” “sexual assault policy,” “job security/fair process,” “health: mental, dental and vision,” and more.


HGSU-UAW technically has enough signatures to call an election to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board mandates that 30 percent of employees need to sign authorization cards in order to hold an election; HGSU-UAW has over 60 percent of worker support, Fonseka said. As it currently stands, Harvard does not need to legally recognize a union of graduate employees based on a 2004 NLRB ruling. This may change in coming months as the NLRB is set to decide on student workers at the New School.

“When an election is called, people will independently vote to be represented,” Fonseka said. “These cards are for us to gauge the level of support in the community and as well, trying to know what issues people are interested in.”

Union organizer and History graduate student Aaron T. Bekemeyer said the majority reflects the portion of the more than 4,000 students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who are employed by Harvard, meaning they are teaching fellows or research assistants. He clarified that not all 14,500 graduate and professional students enrolled in Harvard’s graduate schools work for the University.

“When you’re working for the University, you’re considered a grad employee,” Bekemeyer said. “So for instance, someone in my department, the History department, when they come in as a first year and they’re just taking classes, they don’t have an employment relationship with the University at that point.”

GSAS is the only school at Harvard able to grant Ph.D.s, so any student enrolled in a Ph.D. program technically receives that degree from GSAS. On its website, GSAS boasts 16 interfaculty Ph.D. programs.

For that reason, the HGSU-UAW’s majority support comes from all of Harvard’s graduate schools, according to Bekemeyer.

“I think it was really encouraging to see that people were willing to kind of communicate and work together across disciplines,” Fonseka said.

GSAS Dean for Administration and Finance Allen Aloise wrote in an email that the administration is committed to helping GSAS students complete their studies and help them navigate challenges that they face while at Harvard.

"We welcome a full and open conversation on these important issues, encouraging graduate students to ask questions and get answers on the impact of unionization,” Aloise wrote. “We believe that the relationship between graduate students and a university is fundamentally about education not employment.”

Bekemeyer said he thinks that even if a student is not currently defined as a graduate "worker,” every graduate student has a stake in the movement.

“It’s ultimately something that, in one way or another, every grad student is concerned about, in terms of the voice they have and the conditions of their work and how secure their work is, whether there is due process for their employment,” Bekemeyer said.

He added that the number of graduate employees is in flux because of students' movement into and out of teaching positions and research assistantships.

Bekemeyer said he is excited about the majority, but added he was always confident that the threshold would be reached.

“We’re continuing the card campaign this semester,” he said. “We have a majority, but we want that to be a larger and more substantial and powerful majority as we go forward, so we’re pushing it as high as we can.”

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


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