Ruling on Grad Student Unionization Sparks Mixed Reactions

The National Labor Relations Board's decision to grant teaching assistants at private universities employee status with collective bargaining rights has sparked a variety of reactions at Harvard, as classes begin and the prospect of a union election looms.

On Monday, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng sent an email to graduate students updating them on the recent developments, noting that the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers could now call for a union election. Meng wrote that the University “has invited the HGSU-UAW to meet and discuss next steps in light of the NLRB’s decision.”

Yale’s graduate student unionization effort has already petitioned the NLRB, and is seeking to have departments file for elections individually. This approach differs from the previous filing practices of union movements at other universities.

“The decision to form a labor union is a serious one and I look forward to joining you in a robust dialogue,” Meng wrote.

As of February, at least 60 percent of the nearly 4,000 graduate students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who are employed by Harvard as teaching fellows or research assistants had signed an authorization card in support of the HGSU-UAW. Union organizers celebrated last week’s landmark decision to recognize graduate students as workers with collective bargaining rights as an important victory for the movement.

Students not involved in the union effort also expressed excitement. Philosophy Ph.D. student James F. Bondarchuk, who has signed an authorization card, said, “I think it’s great. I think it’s a very positive development for graduate students.”

Bondarchuk said he does not believe a union would affect his relationship with his advisers and professors, a claim which remains one of the University’s chief arguments against unionization and a topic of concern among some students.

“Your adviser is not directly and personally profiting from your being paid. The incentive structure in the adviser-advisee relationship is very different from in a traditional employer-employee relationship,” Bondarchuk said.

When asked if he would also vote in support of the HGSU-UAW in the coming election, he responded that he would “without hesitation.”

Sociology Ph.D. student Charlotte Lloyd, who is not actively involved in the unionization effort, was also pleased by the NLRB decision. She intends to vote in support of the HGSU-UAW in an election.

“Proper recognition of graduate student labor and the protections that recognition entails are overdue and ultimately beneficial to the university community,” Lloyd wrote in an email. “Hopefully the union will be a positive forum for discussion of graduate student labor issues.”

But some graduate students are not as convinced. While Kevin Tian, a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, acknowledges that unions in general have been beneficial for improving working conditions, he has doubts about their efficacy in a university setting.

“To me it’s not immediately obvious whether a union for the engineering students would make sense,” Tian said. “Students at SEAS, for example, only have to teach once. One semester, one section. So it’s a significantly reduced load in terms of how much we serve as a teaching assistant compared to research assistantship.”

“It seems a lot of things are so department-specific, I’m not sure how [the union] would address that,” Tian added.

In addition to student research assistants and teaching fellows, undergraduate teaching assistants could be part of a union as well. The debate over unionization has been mostly confined to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and other graduate schools, but it could potentially spill over into the College.

James Lim ’16, a former Crimson sports editor, who was a teaching fellow for an intermediate macroeconomics course for three years as an undergraduate, said the undergraduate and graduate student teaching fellows performed the same work.

“My day-to-day was no different than that of the graduate students who are also TFs,” Lin said. “We also prepare teaching materials and taught sections every week.”

However, Lin said he considered the experience to be an enriching part-time job.

“Is it something we would have demanded union rights for? I’m not sure about that,” Lin said. “I don’t think that any undergraduate teaching fellows jumped into the class thinking that this was going to be a job per se.”

Gabriel G. Hodgkin ’18 expressed his support for the broad category of workers that includes undergraduates. Hodgkin is a member of the Student Labor Action Movement, an undergraduate group that advocates for worker rights.

“I’m excited that the NLRB definition includes so many of the people whose work makes our community run, and it’s important that we all be able to join together to make Harvard a healthier place,” Hodgkin said.

He added that he is excited about what the decision will mean for graduate students.

“Grad students have quite an important role in my education. I’ve seen firsthand the work they do and I know that the grad students’ working conditions are the undergraduates’ learning conditions,” Hodgkin said. “We’re all in this together.”

Tian said he thinks the discussion surrounding unionization will get more serious in the coming weeks, in light of the decision. There is not a clear cut majority of students for or against the union effort in SEAS, he added.

“The discussion is going to be happening a lot more openly because it is considered now an option that there will be an actual election, as opposed to before where it was kind of a very vague hypothetical,” he said.

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

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