After five years of organizing, two elections, three legal appeals, and more than a few rallies, members of Harvard’s graduate student union entered their first bargaining session with Harvard administrators Monday afternoon.
Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers marked the occasion with a kickoff rally in Harvard Yard. Mid-day Monday, around 40 union members gathered under overcast skies to celebrate a day that, as recently as last semester, many believed would never come.
The makeup of the crowd reflected just how long graduate students have been pushing to make these negotiations a reality — almost no one present was among the first group of HGSU-UAW organizers that formed five years ago. Some were not even students at Harvard when eligible graduate and undergraduate students first voted on whether to form a union in Nov. 2016.
If the union succeeds in advocating for major reforms, the negotiations could radically change the student experience of HGSU-UAW’s roughly 5,000 members. At the rally, attendees were asked to shout out what they hope the first contract will produce. Among their asks: “fair pay,” “vision and dental,” “accountability against abuse,” “protect international workers,” and “childcare support.”
In agreeing to bargain in good faith with the union, Harvard joins a small handful of private universities — including Brandeis University, Tufts University, New York University, the New School, and American University — that have entered formal contract negotiations with their students. Of these cases, HGSU-UAW’s negotiations are of an unprecedented scale — at around 5,000 members, HGSU-UAW’s bargaining unit is about five times the size of other student unions’.
The union’s sheer numbers could complicate negotiations — and the makeup and complexity of the bargaining unit, which is comprised of undergraduate and graduate teaching and research assistants, may also prove thorny. As they work towards a contract, HSGU-UAW and administrators will have to navigate the financial status, harassment policies, and administrative priorities of Harvard’s 12 schools — all of which may not necessarily align.
HGSU-UAW’s bargaining committee spent much of the summer and fall surveying its constituents and developing an 80-count list of preliminary bargaining goals, which the union released in early September. Experts called the list, which spanned topics from childcare to anti-discrimination protections, “very ambitious,” a charge several speakers refuted at Monday’s event.
HGSU-UAW Civil and Human Rights Committee member Felix Y. Owusu said his prior experience as a member of another graduate student union — the UC Student-Workers Union at the University of California, Berkeley — leads him to believe that HSGU-UAW can negotiate a contract that touches every aspect of members’ Harvard experience.
“Ignoring the fact that this is negotiations — we don’t want to compromise preemptively — some of the things that people talked about that seems like they were pie-in-the-sky, kind of ‘reach’ things, are not,” he said. “A lot of the things that we’re saying that we could never do or we couldn’t afford here at Harvard University, with an endowment the size of the GDP of some nations, are things that other universities already have in their unions’ contracts.”
Despite the gravity of their asks, the pre-bargaining event also included lighter moments. Students drank “solidarity cider,” sang or spoke chants, and rerouted confused tourists and students rushing to class.
Bargaining committee member and Ph.D. student Justin Bloesch said sharing food is one way the union has built community among graduate students. He added he thinks the push for a union has helped graduate students feel less alone.
“When you have a union, you’re not just an individual navigating the system anymore,” Bloesch said. “Have a drink together, meet with your department, chat about what’s going on in your life. In the end, the contract means nothing if you don’t read it and talk about it.”
Just before 12:30 p.m., bargaining committee member Ege Yumusak ’16 — a former Crimson magazine editor — said her team would be late if they didn’t leave the Yard soon. Soon after, the entire crowd began shepherding the 13-member bargaining team towards their meeting with the University, held in the Office for Labor and Employee Relations at 124 Mount Auburn Street.
Representatives from HGSU-UAW declined to comment on how the half-day session went. In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain emphasized the unique circumstances under which the negotiations are taking place.
“We were pleased to begin negotiations today with our newest union partners as we begin the process of creating, from scratch, the first-ever contract of its kind here at Harvard,” he wrote. “We remain focused on engaging in productive, thoughtful discussions that will move the negotiations forward and result in a superior contract for both parties, upholding Harvard’s commitment to excellence for all students.”
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