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Contract Negotiations at UConn Offer Window into Realities of Grad. Union Bargaining

The Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building
The National Labor Relations Board's Boston regional office is housed in the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building in Boston.

Graduate students at the University of Connecticut completed a second round of bargaining last week, wrapping up negotiations for their campus’ bargaining unit that Harvard’s graduate union organizers often point to when arguing for the advantages of unionization.

Eligible Harvard graduate and undergraduate students will head to the polls on Wednesday and Thursday to weigh in on whether they want to begin collectively bargaining with the University through Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers. If a majority vote in favor of unionization, the union could form a bargaining committee, which would then distribute surveys to determine the content of a proposed negotiating agenda.

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For the UConn Graduate Employees Union-UAW, the bargaining process began with surveying members of the bargaining unit and analyzing responses to determine what the union should prioritize, according to Stephen Manicastri, an organizer for GEU-UAW. Union leadership then developed an agenda and allowed members to vote on it, Manicastri stated.

“The reason for that is that one, a union is a democratic institution, and two, having a majority of union members complete the survey gives you the power at the bargaining table to say, this is really what people need in order to be the best researchers and the best teachers they can be at this university,” Manicastri said.

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After several months of negotiations, the University of Connecticut and its graduate student union reached an agreement last week. GEU-UAW’s first round of negotiations with administrators began in the fall of 2014 and finished in mid-April of 2015.

Manicastri said that the second round took around the same length of time, though he noted the process was made easier because the union was “more established” and had “basic language” in place to build upon.

“It can take about six months to a year, depending on what kind of mobilization there is among union members,” he added.

Though different precedents and regulations govern student unionization at private and public universities, University of Oregon Professor of Labor Education Gordon Lafer wrote in an email that he thinks there is “no great mystery” about how the bargaining at UConn would compare to the process at Harvard.

“The processes are essentially the same,” Lafer wrote.

In 2014, over 70 percent of graduate students at UConn voted in favor of a union. During Harvard’s first Nov. 2016 unionization election, later overturned on procedural grounds, about 52 percent of students voted against unionization.

Manicastri said that he thought the results of GEU-UAW’s negotiations helped convince students on his campus who did not support unionization. According to Manicastri, the contract includes increases to tuition waivers and stipends, interim protections for those who comes forward with sexual harassment allegations, and reduced workloads for research assistants in lab.

“There were obviously people that were skeptics and people that are ideologically opposed to unions,” he said. “The way that you reach out, you kind of show them that this does work, that this process does work.”

University spokespeople declined to comment when asked how Harvard’s administration would handle negotiations if this week’s vote is in favor of unionization.

In an email sent two weeks ago, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 highlighted resources that are already available to graduate students absent collective bargaining, including the University’s Title IX officers and the Harvard International Office. University officials have also repeatedly encouraged students to consider the “potential impact of unionization” and vote in the election.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.


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

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