On Thursday, Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote, “The University’s goal was always to include all eligible voters on the list”. He insists, “533 names were unintentionally omitted from the list of eligible voters.” His claim that these names were unintentionally omitted is directly contradicted by the fact that in its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, Harvard continues to fight the eligibility of 195 voters. I am one of those voters, and Harvard continues to fight against my vote.
Last fall, students at private universities won the right to unionize, and with that newly enshrined right, Harvard students decided to take a vote on whether or not we wanted to unionize. As a first-year graduate student in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, I decided to participate in the vote as I wanted a say in my employment conditions as a student-worker. When I went to the polls to cast my vote, I was surprised to find that my name was not on the list, but instead I could cast a challenged ballot that I was told may or may not be counted. I later found out some 533 of us had been left off the list of eligible voters, but I could not understand why. Wasn’t I a graduate student and employee at this university? Didn’t I have a right for my vote to be counted just the same as everyone else?
As it turns out, the Harvard administration didn’t think so, arguing that first-years in my department should not count as common law employees. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to argue my case before the Hearing Officer at the Regional NLRB. I tried my best to explain the experience of first year graduate students in my department. I described my work researching and designing my project as well as the troubleshooting that goes along with that, and my experience working with another student in my lab helping with their project and learning from them. It is the nature of our department that students come in with varying levels of project development, but we are all accepted into the program with the understanding that the work we do, whether it be project design, learning techniques, data collection, or data analysis is part of the research process.
To find out that the Harvard administration is still trying to argue that the votes of 195 graduate students, including myself, should not be counted is astonishing. They continue to fight to have our vote silenced and show disregard for the testimony that I and other student-workers gave. In their appeal to the NLRB, Harvard characterizes the work of first-year students in my department as “introductory, largely devoid of performance of research on behalf of the faculty member or the institution,” an assertion which is frankly false and disrespectful to the work we do. Any background research and training we do is work that we perform on behalf of faculty members and Harvard and is vital to our research. For example, a colleague of mine was able to present the work she did her first semester in Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology to the 2017 conference for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
I believe that it is essential to the democratic process that all students left off the voter list, not just those from my department, be counted. The Regional Director of the NLRB agrees, and as such, ordered a new vote for student unionization at Harvard, requiring the Harvard administration to count our votes and provide the full list of voters to the union organizers so that the union has a fair chance to make its case to each eligible voter. Harvard’s argument, in part, for appealing this ruling, as stated in the recent email from the Provost, was that it was challenging to put the full list together. I am not unsympathetic to the difficulty of this task, but the students should not be the ones punished for what amounts to a bureaucratic failure. One student left of the voter list is too many. In a democracy, all voices must count equally and have equal opportunity to be heard.
I support unionization efforts because the same bureaucratic failures that left over 500 voters off the list also affect whether students are paid on time, paid the right amount, or have access to their employment benefits. As an employee at the University, I would like to have a say about how I am treated as an employee. I think the democratic nature of a union is the best way to make sure all student workers have a say in our employment conditions. However, the right to a new and fair election is not about my individual political beliefs. If we decide not to unionize in a fair election where the administration adheres to labor law, I am happy to abide by that decision. But first we must all have the right for our voices to be heard.
Jennifer K. Austiff is second year graduate student in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
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