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UPDATED: March 9, 2017 at 2:39 p.m.
When Harvard students organized a unionization effort, they took an ambitious tack: form one union for all of the University's thousands of eligible graduate students and undergraduate teaching assistants.
As that singular effort, which formally began in 2015, has stalled in the face of vote count delays and now an National Labor Relations Board hearing that could decide its ultimate fate, a parallel effort at Yale has progressed through a more piecemeal approach. Union organizers at Yale instead opted to try and form nine individual departmental unions.
Even as Yale's unionization effort has yielded quicker results—graduate students in six departments there voted to form unions—some organizers at Harvard stand by their broader strategy.
Harvard union organizers explain their decision to try to form one larger union by asserting that students across different departments share similar employment conditions. But Yale organizers argue that individual departmental unions would let Local 33, the union that represents Yale graduate students, effectively serve its members.
“To me, the union experience is based about people coming together and voicing shared concerns,” Felix Owusu, a Harvard union organizer, said. “Those aren’t necessarily things that are going to differ because I study the criminal justice system and another friend studies the environment and another friend does cancer research.”
Owusu said the union would address issues of healthcare, pay, and harassment procedures, and that, from speaking to graduate students across departments, he thinks that they share similar concerns.
“Those are things that I felt that everybody could get behind and it would be kind of ridiculous in my mind if I formed a union to get these things but someone else who is doing the same work—teaching at Harvard university—forms another union,” he said.
Yale, on the other hand, attempted to organize what the NLRB calls “microunits”: smaller, departmental unions within the same company or organization. Yale students were able to unionize in microunits because of a NLRB decision in 2011 that allowed departments of organizations to form separate unions.
Yale graduate student and union organizer Aaron Greenberg said microunits are effective at Yale because students’ needs vary by department.
“Yale is organized into departments and so are graduate teachers,” he wrote in an email. “Voting department by department means that departments that want the union can have it, and those that don't, won't.”
Greenberg said Yale unions will address “issues of race and gender equity, job security, and mental health care” for students.
At Harvard, some graduate students have said that the popularity of unionization varies by discipline, with humanities students more vocally supporting the effort than students in STEM disciplines.
Of the nine Yale departments that held unionization elections, six voted to unionize. The results of the unionization election make Yale the second private university to unionize after August’s NLRB decision legalized graduate student unionization at private universities. Columbia graduate students also voted to form a union in a November election. Like at Harvard, Columbia organizers pursued one larger, unified union.
Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Technical and Clerical Workers, said that microunits in certain departments can inspire workers in departments that are not yet unionized to form a collective bargaining unit.
“It wouldn’t be a theoretical conversation, it would be here’s what we’ve done in other departments,” he said.
Although six Yale departments voted to unionize, the fate of Harvard’s election remains unclear. The University and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers are in the process of presenting evidence about objections filed by both parties to the November unionization election.
If the NLRB agrees with the union’s objections, it could call for a re-vote.
In the hearing, the two parties have also discussed whether challenged ballots— ballots from voters whose eligibility is disputed—should be counted. The remaining unresolved challenged ballots could determine the outcome of the election.
Amidst discussion about Harvard and Yale’s models of unionization, the results of Duke’s unionization effort, which also involved one large union, were inconclusive. Duke union organizers have since withdrawn their petition to unionize. Had they not done so, they, like Harvard, would have attended hearings at the NLRB to resolve challenged ballots and determine the outcome of the election.
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