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Some Undergrad TFs Unaware of Potential Impacts of Unionization

A polling place during the first student unionization election in 2016.
A polling place during the first student unionization election in 2016. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: March 2, 2018 at 11:09 p.m.

In a month and a half, some undergraduates will be eligible to step into booths, grab pencil and paper, and fill out a ballot to determine whether eligible Harvard student teaching staff can form a union—but many College students say they remain unaware of what this means.

In particular, some undergraduate teaching fellows and course assistants say they did not realize they would have to pay dues if unionization supporters prevail. Of roughly a dozen students reached by The Crimson Tuesday who taught courses this year, the vast majority—nine (which included five students teaching this semester)—said they had no idea unionization might come with a fee.

Others are totally unaware of the years-long push to unionize.

“What is unionization?” said John Na ’20, an undergraduate teaching fellow for the fall course CS50.

Harvard will hold a second unionization election April 18 and 19 to decide whether graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants can collectively bargain with the University. The election follows an extended legal battle between unionization advocates and the University over the validity of the results of the original Nov. 2016 election, which showed 1,526 votes against unionization and 1,396 in favor. According to an NLRB election order, undergraduate students must teach courses this semester to be eligible to vote.

If the second election’s results fall in favor of unionization, Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers—the group making a bid to represent Harvard’s eligible teaching staff—would solicit a percentage of each union member’s salary as dues in order to hire organizers, fund strikes, and retain legal counsel.

The UAW’s base rate for members is set at a minimum of 1.44 percent of monthly wages. Per UAW policy, the money collected from members is split between the local UAW, the international UAW, and the Strike and Defense Fund.

Union advocate Evan C. Mackay ’19—who has served as a teaching fellow for multiple Statistics courses—said he thinks pay increases from collective bargaining would outweigh the cost of dues.

“Currently, the way that I understand it is that the union dues would be the same for undergraduates as graduate students,” said Mackay, who is teaching this semester. “I know that 1.44 percent would be coming out for me, but looking into the research that I’ve done, I know that would be overcome by the increase in wages that a union can help provide.”

Other students eligible to vote in the election said they are surprised they have to pay dues at all.

Sathvik R. Sudireddy ’19, a current teaching fellow, said he has heard “a little bit” about the nuances of the student unionization effort but did not know undergraduates could be required to pay union dues.

“I think money is not the most important to me, personally, when I TF a course. It’s more about the experience and the satisfaction I get from teaching other undergraduates,” Sudireddy said. “But I can see why other TFs might find it very unfair, because we don’t get paid that much as it is.”

Ellen Li ’20, who is a current Math 25 course assistant, wrote in an email that she felt not “fully informed” about the April election.

“I have not received any information about the upcoming unionization election from the university,” Li wrote.

Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran wrote in an email earlier this month that the University aims to finalize the eligible voter list for the April election and contact eligible voters by March 12.

Li added that her impression was that her colleagues are similarly unaware of the issues surrounding unionization.

“It seems that many other undergraduate CA's/TF's are also not aware of this,” Li wrote.

Per the election agreement between the University and Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers, all eligible undergraduate TFs and CAs would be part of a bargaining unit if the union wins the election, regardless of their position on unionization or their participation in the election. Union members, including unionized undergraduates, would be able to vote to approve any contracts negotiated by HGSU-UAW.

In the run-up to the 2016 unionization election, anti-unionization students cited dues as a drawback of voting to collectively bargain, especially the portion of dues that union members would pay to the national and international UAW.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTION: March 2, 2018

A previous version of this article misstated the eligibility of undergraduate teaching fellows to vote in the unionization election. In fact, only undergraduates teaching this semester are eligible to vote.

CORRECTION: March 2, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Tyler E. Griggs '20 as a statistics course assistant. In fact, he was a course assistant for CS50.

—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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