How a Grad Union Could Fix Disparities Across Harvard

As students in the various Harvard Graduate Schools, we celebrate the recent NLRB decision, which restored the right of student employees at private universities to unionize. The ruling will positively impact a wide range of student workers. Many in the Harvard community may not know that Harvard grants several research doctorates in addition to the traditional PhD from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Many of these non-PhD doctoral programs are being replaced with traditional PhDs, but for at least the next five to seven years, there will still be hundreds of non-PhD doctoral students, including Doctors of Theology (ThDs) at the Divinity School, Doctors of Education (EdDs) at the School of Education, and Doctors of Science (ScDs) at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health. These programs each offer their own support packages to incoming students, resulting in a piecemeal approach to providing financial and social support that breeds substantial inequities among the roughly 4,000 doctoral students on campus. Forming a union that comprises all graduate workers (TAs, TFs, RAs) across programs will enable students to bargain collectively for policies that support all doctoral students in their roles as teachers and researchers.

Starting last fall, our unionization efforts here drew attention to the importance of family friendly policies to make Harvard a more inclusive and just university. Soon after our union gained majority support last December, the Harvard administration gave out improvements to the GSAS students, a clear response to unionization. While we celebrated these improvements, they did not apply to non-PhD doctoral students. Although some improvements for ThDs, EdDs, and ScDs have been announced since then, disparities remain. ScD students have been promised tuition and health insurance coverage, but still do not receive any type of systematic stipends. In addition, the brand new GSAS enhancements only apply to selected humanities and social science departments. With a union, we will have a voice to make sure no one slips through the cracks.

These discrepancies exist not just for benefits, but also with the more basic aspects of graduate student finances. PhD students receive a funding package that typically includes 2-3 years of a stipend, 2 years of guaranteed TF and RA positions, and 5 years of tuition, fees, and health care coverage. At the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in contrast, some ScD students have had to pay full tuition, in addition to receiving no stipend and paying for health insurance out of pocket. To make matters worse, the TA pay-rate is substantially lower than that of others schools. As a teaching assistant to a standard, quarter-long class in Global Health and Population, one of us was paid just $875 dollars (total, not per month).

Further examples abound, across departments and schools. Some PhDs in GSAS were paid a quarter the standard teaching fellowship for courses taught in other departments; this varies from department to department, and there is no standardization of pay. After paying tuition and fees, students often can only break even financially. A few of us have turned to state-funded health insurance policies for spouses and children because it is prohibitively expensive to add dependents onto Harvard’s health insurance; these services provide the bare minimum while still demanding out-of-pocket expenses. Some are on SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, and are offered no ongoing, monthly financial assistance for child support (unlike at other, unionized universities).

At the School of Education, there is a large disparity between the support offered to EdD candidates and those pursuing a PhD. While parental leave and health care benefits were expanded over this past summer, likely due to our unionization efforts, EdD students are guaranteed a much smaller stipend, only available during their first year. Additionally, while compensation for TFing and RAing is similar to what is offered by GSAS, the expectations that professors have of TFs and RAs vary widely. Some courses require much more work of TFs than others. Some researchers allow RAs to coauthor papers, while others insist that authored work be done without pay. With a union and a real seat at the table, graduate workers will have the ability to hold administrators accountable to clear policies.

In order to meet our basic needs, many of us end up prioritizing external consultancies and other outside jobs unrelated to our research. Predictably, this greatly reduces the time and attention we can devote to our coursework and dissertation research, and runs contrary to the entire purpose of our programs. Meanwhile, the benefits offered to PhDs seem like pipe dreams to those of us toiling without so much as a basic living stipend.

Forming a university-wide graduate employee union is a concrete and constructive act of solidarity among all students who perform important work for Harvard University. Instead of working on an individual basis, TFs, TAs, and RAs could collectively bargain over important issues, from teaching compensation to spousal health insurance benefits. Currently, all policy decisions are made unilaterally by the administration; a union would give us a voice in shaping the conditions of our work. A union can negotiate better contracts for all workers without “leveling down” the conditions of some, or without disrupting the relationship between advisors and students—both common misconceptions about how grad unions function. We want to be part of a community that looks after the interest of each and every one of us, not just the ones who happen to get lucky or come from more privileged backgrounds. Forming a union of graduate workers from across the University is the only way to obtain just benefits that offer equal opportunity to all.

Joseph C. McIntyre is an EdD Candidate in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Leigh G. Senderowicz is an ScD Candidate in Global Health and Population at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Axel Marc Oaks Takács is a ThD Candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School.