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Grad Unionization Movement Sees Successes Nationwide As Harvard Begins Bargaining

By Margot E. Shang
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Immediately following Harvard graduate students’ vote to unionize, some experts predicted the move would have a ripple effect on other universities. Months after the April election, that prediction appears to have come to fruition as unions at peer institutions have won elections and bargaining rights.

Eligible graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants voted to authorize Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers’s petition to bargain on their behalf last April. Eleven days later, Harvard administrators announced they would bargain in good faith with the union, breaking with leaders at peer institutions that chose not to recognize graduate unions on their campuses.

Now — after an uncertain start at the beginning of the academic year — several unions have followed in HGSU-UAW’s footsteps, securing historic gains in their own fights for better wages and benefits.

At three universities — Tufts University, the New School, and Brandeis University — graduate student unions successfully negotiated their first contracts this month. And at two other schools — Brown University and Georgetown University — eligible student employees voted to unionize.

Avram L. Reisman, an organizer for the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, wrote in an email that GAGE’s past successes and future plans have been influenced by the work of unions at peer institution.

“GAGE will work to ensure that the first contract represents the movement that has coalesced in support of unionization,” he wrote. “We will certainly look to the examples of successful first contracts for guidance moving forward.”

“As more and more stories like GAGE get attention, more unionization efforts will start and, hopefully, succeed,” Reisman added.

At Columbia University — where the original 2016 National Labor Relations Board precedent which allows graduate students to unionize was decided — the graduate union has also made recent headway.

Columbia administrators refused to recognize the union after a successful vote held in Dec. 2017. At the time, they said the teaching and research assistants included in the proposed bargaining unit were primarily students, not workers, and thus did not have the right to collectively bargain over wages and benefits — an argument which several universities, including Harvard, have repeated in the past.

This refusal prompted members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW to authorize a strike, walking picket lines during the final week of their spring semester. This fall, after GWC-UAW members threatened to strike again, Columbia agreed to bargain under a framework proposed jointly by the university and the UAW.

Though GWC-UAW members still have to vote to approve the framework, the proposal marks a step forward after months of tension between the union and university. William A. Herbert, who directs the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York, wrote in an email that the Columbia decision is part of a recent trend that kicked off at Harvard.

"The current willingness of Columbia University to commence bargaining with the union certified to represent its student assistants follows in the footsteps of Harvard, Brown, Georgetown, and other institutions,” Herbert wrote.

The HGSU-UAW bargaining committee wrote in an emailed statement that they support Columbia’s union regardless of the outcome of the upcoming vote.

“We know that the current proposal for negotiations has created robust debate, and we support the student workers at Columbia regardless of if they vote to approve the agreement or continue with a strike,” HGSU-UAW negotiators wrote. “We stand with them and campaigns across the nation in our joint struggle to assert our labor rights as student workers.”

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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