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Unionization Advocates Ramp Up Outreach Ahead of April Election

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

UPDATED: March 21, 2018 at 2:50 p.m.

As the University prepares to hold a second student unionization election, organizers for Harvard’s major unionization advocacy group are ramping up outreach to eligible graduate and undergraduate voters to convince the students to vote “yes.”

The election is scheduled to take place April 18 and 19. At stake is whether qualifying graduate and undergraduate students may begin to collectively bargain with the University as members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers.

The April vote follows more than a year of legal back-and-forth between union organizers and the University over the result of the first unionization election, held Nov. 2016. Around 3,000 students were eligible to vote in that election. The result—later ruled invalid by the National Labor Relations Board—showed more votes against unionization than in favor.

This year, organizers are determined to ensure the final tally goes their way—hence the upped efforts to reach students in the waning weeks before April 18.

Of more than 250 graduate students contacted by The Crimson, roughly 20 of 30 respondents said union organizers or supporters reached out to them in 2018.

But organizers may be focusing their efforts differently this time around. Two years ago, according to several Harvard affiliates, the union took a very public approach to reaching voters. For example, unionization advocates postered in locations all around campus.

“You would see lots of posters being put up across campus by the union,” Economics Ph.D. student Stephanie D. Cheng said.

Now, though, the union seems to be targeting its outreach efforts to specific Harvard departments. Graduate students from 15 of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’s 75 degree-granting programs said they are aware of departmental “get out the vote” groups in both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Cheng, Human and Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student Mariel B. Young, and sociology Ph.D. student Mo Torres all said they think the union has shifted its outreach strategy to degpartment-specific communications.

English Ph.D. student and HGSU-UAW organizer Andrew B. Donnelly wrote in an email that the goal of focusing on departments is to encourage one-on-one conversations in advance of the election.

“We're trying to talk to as many people as possible, and the best way to do that is to have colleagues talking to colleagues,” Donnelly wrote.

Fellow HGSU-UAW organizer and Economics Ph.D. student Justin Bloesch agreed.

“We’ve been trying to make sure that the people who are having the conversations are in tune with the issues that are in their departments and affect the people around them,” Bloesch said.

Still, for some, the departmental focus signals a softer communications strategy. Cheng and Young both said they think outreach efforts this year are slightly quieter than in past years. Cheng said unionization advocates have been contacting her since 2015.

Torres wrote in an email he thinks more students have participated in outreach efforts this year than did in 2016.

“During the last election, I got the sense that the outreach efforts fell on the shoulders of a relatively small group of graduate student organizers. This time around, I have seen many, many more students involved in the GOTV campaign,” Torres wrote.

University officials are also working to encourage eligible voters to cast ballots come April. University Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran wrote an email to students Tuesday notifying them voter lists have been finalized and asking eligible students to read about issues surrounding unionization ahead of the election.

“As we move toward the election, it is critically important to consider the issues at stake and engage in a robust conversation about the potential impact of unionization,” Curran wrote.

Donnelly wrote in an email that, overall, the union organizers’ revamped voter outreach efforts address a perceived need for more dialogue between student workers.

“The lesson is more dialogue, more listening, more conversations,” Donnelly wrote.

In addition to their departmental efforts, the union plans to hold weekly information sessions and events between now and April 18.

—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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