Last April, we, as student workers at Harvard, voted to form the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers. At a time when our democracy is tested every day with attacks on immigrants, slashes to affordable healthcare, normalization of rape culture, and fiercely anti-worker politics, we chose to claim our democratic voice on campus by forming our union. Starting next week, our elected bargaining committee will sit down with the Harvard administration to negotiate our first collective bargaining agreement.
We follow in the footsteps of dining hall workers, custodians, security guards, librarians, and technical workers at Harvard who have secured living wages, affordable healthcare, and protections against discrimination in their union contracts. We also follow in the footsteps of unionized graduate student workers at universities across the country who have won improved individual and family healthcare coverage, support for graduate workers with children, higher compensation, stronger protections for undocumented and international students, and stronger protections against sexual harassment and assault.
Over the summer, the bargaining committee sent out a survey to student workers across the University; thousands of student workers responded, describing top priorities and concerns. In reading over these survey responses, we noticed several common themes. First, even though we study and work at the wealthiest university in the world, our pay rates, benefits and protections do not provide us with security and stability, especially in the face of insecure job markets, rising housing costs, and discriminatory federal policies. Too many student workers struggle to access healthcare, mental health care, and childcare; professional school students face ever-increasing student debt; and Ph.D. stipends have failed to keep up with rapidly rising costs of living. Second, too many women, student workers of color, BGLTQstudent workers, immigrant student workers, and other vulnerable student workers face discrimination, harassment, and demands to do unpaid and extra work. Third, Harvard’s un-democratic and decentralized structure prevents student workers from having their voices heard and their needs met. In too many cases, some student workers are threatened by loss of healthcare, must contend with advisors who create an unhealthy work environment, or cannot access job opportunities even when their funding is contingent on such work. In the status quo, these student workers also lack a clear and reliable channel for addressing these problems.
Based on these surveys, the bargaining committee developed a set of bargaining goals. Our proposed bargaining goals offer material and structural solutions to the problems that student workers face and provide a pathway to building a more just and equitable Harvard. These goals include: stronger protections and recourse against sexual harassment; profiling and discrimination; improved support for student workers with disabilities; improved protections for undocumented, immigrant, and international student workers; fully-paid medical, dental, and vision insurance for all student workers and their dependents; comprehensive mental health care; fully-paid sick and family leave; free or low-cost childcare; increased compensation and work opportunities; an expansion of tuition waivers, financial aid, and loan repayment programs; and lower costs of University-owned housing. The bargaining goals build on the demands that student and worker activists across the University have long articulated and aim to make Harvard a pioneer in higher education. Once HGSU members finish voting on the bargaining goals, we look forward to negotiating a fair contract that will make a difference in the lives of thousands of student workers at Harvard.
The Harvard administration has agreed to bargain in good faith with our union, and we look forward to starting negotiations. Yet, we are frustrated that the administration has already delayed the negotiations by resisting to provide information to the bargaining committee — including information about student worker compensation and healthcare — that would enable us to effectively negotiate over key issues. Winning a strong contract in a timely manner requires a robust bargaining schedule and willingness to share information to facilitate the bargaining process.
The administration’s actions show that we cannot simply wait for Harvard to agree to our goals. Rather, in order to win the strongest possible contract, student workers across the University — as well as student and community supporters — must come together, speak out, and organize around the issues that matter to us. Our success in contract negotiations — and our union democracy — depends on all of us.
On Oct. 15, the bargaining committee will start negotiating with the Harvard administration. On this day, we will celebrate our first day of bargaining with HGSU members as well as student and community supporters.
Let’s show the administration that we are united under our union and we’re ready to bargain for a better Harvard.
Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15 is a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Ege Yumusak ’16 is a second-year Ph.D. student in philosophy at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Hector F. Medina is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in systems biology at Harvard Medical School. The authors are members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers bargaining committee.
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