Last month, more than 400 Harvard affiliates congregated in the Science Center plaza to rally in support of the graduate student unionization effort. Chants from the crowd filled the air, as ralliers yelled: “this is what democracy looks like” and “let the workers decide.” The energy was palpable, and passersby lingered to watch.
In April 2015, when The Crimson first broke the news that graduate students intended to form a union, the movement was considerably smaller. Over the past year, support for the movement has increased dramatically, with a majority of graduate students employed by Harvard as teaching fellows and research assistants now advocating for a union. Organizers formed a partnership with the United Auto Workers, began a card campaign to gather supporters and authorize the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW to represent them in a collective bargaining unit, and have collaborated with other campus activist groups like Divest Harvard, Reclaim Harvard Law, and the Student Labor Action Movement.
Harvard, likewise, has amped up its opposition to a possible graduate student union. University President Drew G. Faust has repeatedly condemned the movement, arguing that unionization would change the relationship between graduate students and Harvard from one based in academics to a tenser one, focused instead on labor. And in March, the University made its most public denunciation of the movement yet: It submitted an amicus brief to the National Labor Relations Board, which is currently reviewing cases from Columbia University and the New School that could result in requiring private universities to recognize graduate student unions. The brief argued that unionization could create “conflict and tension” between students, faculty, and administrators.
The push to unionize has created stark division between students and administrators, often leaving faculty in the middle. Over the past year, both the movement and opposition to unionization have become stronger and more sophisticated, with no clear signs of letting up.
A Certain Dynamic
The refrain among Harvard administrators is that unionization could threaten the dynamic between graduate students and faculty—an argument that unionization movement leaders strongly contend.
Last fall, as union organizers began to shore up support among their peers, administrators at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences predicted that faculty and students would inevitably discuss unionization. In a letter to faculty, GSAS administrators sought to guide union-related discussions, encouraging faculty to “stress the importance of the academic relationship” between graduate students and professors. Though faculty were explicitly told to never intimidate union supporters, they were asked to explain the disadvantages of union membership. Additionally, GSAS administrators emphasized the benefits that Harvard currently provides and its “record of steady improvement over time—without a union.”
Union organizer William Baldwin, an English Ph.D. student, does not think unionization will affect the dynamic between graduate students and faculty in his department, which, he notes, contains a strong contingent of union supporters. Nearly every graduate in the English Department has signed an authorization card, according to Baldwin.
“When I’m serving as a TF, my employer is the President and Fellows of Harvard—is what I believe it says on my W-2,” Baldwin said. “Unionization is about my relationship with my employer, who is the administration. My academic relationship with my advisers sometimes overlaps with that in various ways, but is a distinct relationship.”
GSAS Dean for Administration and Finance Allen Aloise wrote in a statement in February that “the relationship between graduate students and a university is fundamentally about education not employment.”
Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield agreed with Aloise, citing concerns about how he believes unions typically interact with employers.
“It would indeed ruin the relationship between the teacher and the student—you couldn’t be friends anymore. You wouldn’t get this control over your own courses that you have now,” Mansfield said. “The union would tell you who to hire and nobody would ever be fired, and all the course evaluations would be perfect.”
While Harvard is preoccupied chiefly with relationships between students and faculty, one Physics Ph.D. student, Jae H. Lee, says that tensions have already began to develop between graduate students.
“I think the most salient aspect of the tension is among students,” Lee, who is vocal about his opposition to the movement, said. “If a student supports the union and [another] student doesn’t, then it sometimes creates a lot of tension among them. I experienced this myself, and I’ve heard from my other personal friends that they can’t talk to some other students about this issue because it gets a little bit too heated.”
Brett Culbert, a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Design who opposes unionization, said he conferred with some faculty about how a union could affect faculty-student relationships. According to Culbert, those faculty told him they did believe relationships would change.
The faculty “haven’t steered me one way or the other,” Culbert said. “They just sort of gave me their position on it. I wasn’t in a pro-union, anti-union position—I just kind of wanted to get more information for myself.”
A Call For Neutrality
As Harvard ramped up its opposition, the graduate students took on a new strategy, calling on administrators and faculty to remain neutral as they seek to form a union.
Students have circulated a form asking faculty to stay openly neutral and help call on administrators to refrain from interfering with students’ efforts. Neutrality agreements are common when a workforce is attempting to unionize, although Harvard’s graduate students are not currently legally recognized as a workforce.
The agreement defines interference as “public statements, one-on-one meetings, distribution of literature, or any other active campaigning or activities intended to affect the free choice of graduate workers.”
Union organizers declined to comment on when the neutrality agreement campaign started, or the exact number of signatories, although union organizer and Slavic Languages and Literatures Ph.D. student Abigail Weil said they have, as of early April, “a few dozen.”
Aloise wrote in an email that GSAS has been sustaining a “full and open” dialogue about unionization, but that administrators “also believe that GSAS can be a strong advocate for our students while having an opinion on a matter with far reaching effects on the entire university.”
Music Department Director of Graduate Studies Alexander Rehding signed the neutrality agreement. But because of his position in the department, he said he does not feel it would be appropriate to indicate his personal opinion.
“I hold personal opinions about unionization which I would be happy to share, but I am also [director of graduate studies] at the moment, so I feel compelled to respect GSAS’s position,” he wrote in an email. “This was a lot easier at the beginning of the year when I signed the neutrality pledge, but since the rhetoric has been ramped up I feel the only responsible neutral position is to state nothing beyond my own neutrality.”
Graduate student and union organizer Rudi Batzell made clear that signing the neutrality agreement does not mean a professor supports unionization.
“A faculty member might be against the union but still recognize that workers have a right to choose whether or not they want one,” Batzell said. “Faculty members who sign the neutrality pledge simply support a fair and democratic process.”
Assistant History professor Kirsten A. Weld, who is among the signatories, called the neutrality agreement “the best way to go.” She stressed its importance, particularly in situations in which faculty members serve as advisers for graduate students.
“The whole point of a neutrality agreement is precisely not to take a position one way or the other,” Weld said. “If a faculty member takes a strong public stand on the issue of unionization and they have advisees who diverge from that stand, it can put the advisee in an uncomfortable position. It’s important for graduate students not to feel that their adviser is judging them harshly because of their involvement or their lack of involvement in the unionization effort.”
Some professors have publicly advocated for Harvard to remain neutral. At the union movement’s rally in April, Economics professor Stephen A. Marglin took the Science Center plaza stage and spoke out against what he considered Harvard’s interference in the unionization process. Harvard administrators, though, maintain that in opposing a union they are acting within their legal right.
Although the NLRB decision is still pending, union supporters are optimistic that the ruling will work in their favor. That optimism permeates their rallies, which they held several times over the course of the semester. At one event, the crowd dispersed to the chant “We’ll be back.”
Come next fall, that chant will certainly hold true.
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.