Undergrads Uncertain About Unionization

Harvard graduate students organizing for a union have enthusiastically greeted a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling allowing student teachers and research assistants at private universities.

But some of Harvard’s undergraduate teaching assistants have hardly considered unionizing, let alone considered the implications of the ruling, which could affect them.

Several undergraduates working as teaching fellows and course assistants had not heard about the recent ruling that deemed them employees with collective bargaining rights. Most interviewed said they were either ambivalent or opposed to potentially joining a union.

Anna Cowenhoven, a Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson, declined to comment on the potential for undergraduate students to unionize. The spokesperson of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, Jack M. Nicoludis, also declined to comment.

Following the NLRB’s August ruling, graduate student unionization campaigns have swept campuses across the country, and the discussion surrounding the decision has focused mostly on graduate students. But the NLRB decision itself does not differentiate between graduate and undergraduate students; undergraduate teaching fellows and course assistants are not excluded from the Board’s new expanded categorization of employees.

When a union petitions the NLRB to represent a bargaining unit, it must make clear in its petition the workers it intends to include. If the employer—in this case Harvard—considers the included workers compromise too broad a group, it may argue for a more restricted unit. If the petitioning union and the employer do not come to an agreement, the NLRB makes the final decision on who is included.

Former NLRB chairman and labor law expert William B. Gould wrote in an email that, should there be a dispute between the HGSU-UAW and Harvard over the type of employees included in the unit, the NLRB would base its assessment on “how similar their wages, benefits, [and] conditions of employment are.”

At Harvard, undergraduate and graduate student teaching fellows perform many of the same duties, including holding office hours and leading sections.

But a number of undergraduate TFs said they do not feel a need to unionize and characterized their work as closer to an extracurricular activity than a job. Some had not even realized they could be included in a collective bargaining unit, or had even heard of the new ruling at all.

Daniel H. Nightingale ’18, a teaching fellow for Economics 1010a: “Intermediate Microeconomics,” said his paycheck from TFing is not primarily why he signed up for the position. As an economics concentrator, he said he took on the job as a learning experience because he would get to review the material.

“I see it more as an extracurricular I guess,” Nightingale said. “I think for me it’s just another way to learn, and the fact that I get paid while doing it is just an added bonus.”

Unlike for many undergraduates, though, the TF job is often a major part of the graduate student experience. Graduate students in some departments typically have a specific number of years they are expected to teach, though some graduate students pick up extra sections for more pay, because they rely on their teaching as a source of income.

Tony Turner ’19, who is TFing Engineering Sciences 51: “Computer-Aided Machine Design” for his second semester, said that while graduate students are unionizing on issues related to housing and the stability of their teaching workload, he think undergrads do not have a reason to unionize because they have more options for campus employment and their TF positions are relatively short.

“Maybe the demands of TFing as an undergrad for certain courses here just aren’t enough,” Ivraj Seerha ’19, a teaching fellow for ES51 said. “For me personally I feel no great pressure is upon me where I would need an outside organization in order to help mediate between me and Harvard, or me and my professor.”

A majority of graduate student workers have signed an authorization card in support of the HGSU-UAW.

A number of undergraduates declined to comment for because they said they were uninformed on the issue.

“I can’t really be certain,” Seerha said, when asked how he would vote if given the chance in a union election. “To be quite frank, I don’t think I’m informed enough about the benefits or the disadvantages of having a union.”

—Staff writer Ashley Kim can be reached at ashley.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ashleyjiinkim.

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

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