Students Puzzle Over ‘Surprising’ Unionization Vote Count

For many students on both sides of the unionization question, the initial vote count and the stalled progress of the unionization effort is surprising.
By Caroline S. Engelmayer and Phelan Yu

Signs supporting and opposing the graduate students establishing a union posted on the walls of the Maxwell Dworkin lobby.
Signs supporting and opposing the graduate students establishing a union posted on the walls of the Maxwell Dworkin lobby. By Jessica M. Wang

UPDATED: January 18, 2017 at 2:17 p.m.

When eligible Harvard students went to the polls in November to vote on whether or not they should form a union, union organizers had several reasons to be optimistic.

First, in February 2016, more than 60 percent of graduate students employed by the University had signed authorization cards supporting a union election, indicating significant student interest in unionization.

Then, in August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that student employees at private universities could form unions, opening a legal pathway for eligible students at Harvard.

And finally, a few weeks after the election at Harvard, eligible students at Columbia voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a union, setting a precedent for a successful student unionization effort at an Ivy League university.

But an initial vote conducted in December after weeks of delay showed that majority of counted ballots in Harvard’s election were not in favor of unionization. While the results of the election are not final—the NLRB will hold hearings to decide which of 314 remaining challenged ballots should be counted on Feb. 21—1,456 of the tallied ballots oppose unionization, while 1,272 support it.

For many students on both sides of the unionization question, this initial vote count and the stalled progress of the unionization effort is surprising. Between the unionization effort’s campaign to win votes, Harvard's initiatives to oppose unionization, and divisions between graduate students in the sciences and engineering and graduate students in the humanities, students say a variety of factors contributed to the unexpected outcome.

“I was honestly pretty surprised,” said John Froberg, a graduate student in molecular biology who said he voted against unionization. “I know that there were a lot of people opposed to it, but I didn’t think it would be anywhere close to a majority.”

A Union Majority?

Because a majority of eligible students had signed authorization cards supporting a unionization effort, union organizers believed that they had garnered enough support to form a union.

“We had broad majority support among the graduate workers throughout the campaign,” said Abhinav Reddy, a graduate student at the School of Public Health and a union organizer. “I think that there’s a real need and a want for unionization on our campus.”

For Reddy, potential confusion about who was eligible to vote may have affected the results of the election. Union organizers argue that the lists of eligible voters the University provided for the election prevented eligible voters from casting ballots.

“What did create a bit of a disadvantage was there was some confusion and anxiety that was caused by Harvard’s administration regarding voter eligibility,” Reddy said. Reddy said this “confusion” could have deterred eligible students from even attempting to vote.

Of the 3,556 students either on the original voter list Harvard provided for the election or later deemed eligible, 2,728 students have filed counted ballots. An additional 314 students' ballots remain under challenge.

Members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers have filed an objection to the election with the NLRB, arguing that inaccuracies in the lists of eligible voters the University provided may have prevented some eligible students from voting. The NLRB is currently considering these objections and is expected to release its decision prior to the Feb. 21 hearing.

Harvard administrators have said repeatedly that they did not exclude eligible students from voting.

"Harvard and the union worked hard to ensure that all students eligible to vote did so,” said Paul R. Curran, Harvard’s Director of Labor and Employee Relations. “As the National Labor Relations Board reviews this election, Harvard will continue to cooperate fully to confirm the results."

While union organizers point to authorization cards from February as an indicator that the effort would succeed, some opponents of unionization say that the cards were not an accurate way of determining voters’ views. Froberg said that the number of authorization cards may not have been a true reflection of support for the unionization effort.

Union effort organizers asked graduate students to sign the cards last year to demonstrate their support for forming a union. The NLRB requires 30 percent of eligible employees in a workplace to sign authorization cards in order to go forward with a unionization election.

“[Organizers] were extremely aggressive about getting you to sign the authorization card. They didn’t necessarily explain what the authorization card was, or what the union was,” said Froberg, “And they kept coming around multiple I think a lot of people were like: ‘Hey, I’ll sign this thing, and so you’ll stop coming after me.’”

Froberg added that many students who were “initially supportive” of the union’s authorization card campaign may not have ended up supporting the union during the election.

“Among my lab—six students—I’m the only one who didn’t sign a card, but every single one of us voted against it, ultimately,” said Froberg.

In an emailed statement, Reddy said that union organizers value "maintaining a healthy and open dialogue between all student workers."

Divisional Differences

Some students said that graduate students in the sciences may have been less likely to support unionization than students in the humanities. The different incentives for the respective groups of graduate students may have affected the way they voted, some students said.

“Our wages are comparatively much higher, we generally don’t do much teaching, we’re generally less dependent on having teaching, we’re generally more free, so I think in terms of the immediate obvious benefits, they’re much greater for students in the humanities,” said Jean Fan, a graduate student in biomedical informatics at the Medical School who said she voted in favor of unionization.

David A. Nee, a graduate student in English who supported unionization, also said that humanities students are more likely to support unionization.

“When you come into the program, various PhD programs, it sort of seems that everything is fairly straightforward in terms of your funding and health insurance and things like that,” he said. “Actually, it ends up being a bit more complex, and there are some surprises in store for people.”

Some students who opposed unionization questioned if a single union would be able to effectively bargain for graduate students in different disciplines and with different work environments.

“It’s better to be specific. GSAS is very different from other departments, and maybe it would be better to have different unions in different departments,” said Wenlong Yang, a graduate student in chemistry, “To mix everything together… I think that is a place where you would have very low efficiency. You have all those different people, and different people have different needs.”

Fan, however, argued that, in the end, a union would benefit all graduate students at Harvard.

“It’s important for Harvard graduate students to have a platform on which to file legal grievances,” Fan said. “I think we’re at the point where we really need dedicated legal support...Going forward, we can’t continuously rely on just student initiatives and the goodwill of Harvard.”

Reddy, who studies computational biology, said that many STEM students also supported unionization.

“As someone who is in a STEM field, I completely support unionization and a bunch of my peers support unionization,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t have STEM students.”

Get Out The Vote

Students also said that campaigns launched by the University and the unionization effort shaped the election’s results.

Before the election, union supporters knocked on the doors of eligible voters, spoke to them in dining halls about unionization, and sent emails to students to urge them to vote in favor of a union.

Nee said these outreach efforts helped convince him to support the union.

“As soon as I got into a room with fellow graduate students, with my peers and colleagues who were organizing to form their own union, it was very clear to me that these were people working in good faith on concerns that affected all of us in the community,” he said.

But these outreach efforts still left some voters with concerns about unionization. Mark Lipstein, a graduate student in biological and biomedical science at the Medical School, said he was concerned about how union dues would be used.

Harvard, too, communicated with potential voters leading up to the election. The Provost’s Office set up an FAQ webpage on unionization and administrators, including Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Xiao Li-Meng, sent multiple emails to students informing them of the date and time of the election and urging them to consider potential consequences of unionization.

Some students said that the University’s outreach efforts, particularly those closer to the election, were not as intense as the union organizers’ but may have had a wider audience.

“For a number of the electorate, that was maybe their first real engagement with the issue,” said Massimo Cè, a graduate student in classics who supported unionization.

Andrea Kriz, a graduate student in the biological and biomedical sciences, criticized this accelerated timeline, arguing that many students had to quickly learn about the arguments for and against unionization.

“I think it was less than three weeks after we got the initial email that there would be an election that the election was actually held,” Kriz, who voted against unionization, said.

Kriz said future student unionization efforts might benefit from having more time to allow students to learn about the union and decide.

“There’s not really a rush. They can have another election next year, as many years as they want,” she said.

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

CORRECTION: January 17, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that the NLRB requires a simple majority of employees in a workplace to sign authorization cards before a unionization election. In fact, the NLRB requires 30 percent of employees in a workplace sign the cards.

CORRECTION: January 17, 2017

Due in part to incorrect information provided by Harvard about the number of eligible voters in November's unionization election, a previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that over 90 percent of eligible students voted in the election. In fact, of the 3,556 students on the eligible voter lists, 2,728 students filed ballots and an additional 314 students voted in the election under challenge.

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