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In November 2016, graduate student workers at Harvard held an election to decide whether or not to unionize. That election was marred by the University’s failure to provide a complete and accurate list of workers eligible to vote, a long-established requirement of employers in union elections sustained by decades of case law. As a result, the Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled the results invalid and called for a new election. The University has appealed that decision to the national level, ostensibly in the hope that an NLRB now stacked with appointments made by President Donald Trump will side against graduate student unionization.
We, the undersigned faculty members, call on Harvard to drop its appeal to the federal NLRB. Harvard’s endowment performance has flagged in recent years, raises in faculty and staff salaries last year were lower than the rate of inflation, and new tenure lines are only seldom granted to departments wishing to replace retiring faculty or to expand into new teaching areas. Using the University’s resources to deny graduate workers their democratic right to a free and fair election on unionization—whatever the results of that election—is a misuse of funds that could be far better spent supporting teaching and research.
At this point in the history of North American higher education, the argument that graduate teachers and researchers are not “real” workers is unsustainable. They teach our discussion sections, do our grading, mentor our students, and run our labs. They are often compelled to take on assignments that have far more to do with curricular demands than with their own scholarly needs. Teaching and research assistants at public universities across the United States, including at institutions where many of us have either studied or taught, have enjoyed the protection of union contracts—and, most importantly, the right to decide for themselves whether they want union representation—for many decades.
As for the rights of graduate teachers and researchers to unionize at private universities, which are governed by the National Labor Relations Act rather than by state law, the NLRB has see-sawed back and forth. In 2000, in a case involving New York University, the Board held that NYU’s graduate teachers were employees with a protected right to join a union and engage in collective bargaining. In 2004, the Bush administration’s NLRB overturned that precedent, ruling that decision that graduate workers at private universities were not employees and therefore were not entitled to NLRA protections. In 2016, the Obama administration’s NLRB reversed that decision on the grounds that it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act without a convincing justification,” leading to a spate of organizing drives at institutions like Columbia, Boston College, Tufts, Brandeis, Duke, and Harvard. Now, the Ivy League universities await a Trump NLRB decision to flip the rules of the game once more—while, in the meantime, encouraging faculty to stress the “downsides” of unionization to their advisees.
This legal tug-of-war shows no signs of abating, as the Board’s majority will continue to switch from Democratic to Republican and back again in accordance with presidential politics. This leaves Harvard with a choice. Will it continue to spend untold sums on lawyers and legal fees, using capricious NLRB decisions as cover for its refusal to offer graduate teachers and researchers a chance at a free and fair election? Will it risk, through its appeal, threatening the national precedent that employers must provide accurate lists of eligible voters in union elections? Or will it choose the high road, dropping its appeal and adopting an official position of neutrality on the unionization question while its graduate teachers and researchers vote anew?
As Harvard faculty, we urge the University administration to choose the high road. We have unqualified faith in the ability of graduate workers on this campus to debate the pros and cons of union representation and to make an informed choice for themselves. Harvard should step aside and let them do so.
Ajantha Subramanian is Professor of Anthropology and of South Asian Studies. Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. Kirsten A. Weld is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of History.
This op-ed has been signed by 50 faculty members. Their names can be found here.
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