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Curran Emails Students Highlighting Anti-Union Concerns

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

In the final days before Harvard’s second unionization election, University Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran sent a rapid-fire series of emails to eligible voters highlighting three key concerns often raised by campus anti-unionization students.

In three emails to eligible voters—sent Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday—Curran discussed union dues, the composition of the proposed bargaining unit, and the impending strike threatened by graduate workers at Columbia.

This week’s unionization election is the University’s second vote on the issue; Harvard also held an election in Nov. 2016. The results of that election, which saw a final tally of 1,526 votes cast against against unionization and 1,396 cast in favor, eventually generated two years of legal debates between the University and the union in front of the National Labor Relations Board.

After three rulings by the regional and national chapters of the board and two separate appeals, the board ultimately invalidated the first election result, mandating a second vote. The vote will take place April 18 and 19; at stake is whether eligible graduate and undergraduate students will earn the right to collectively bargain with Harvard.

Curran wrote in two of the three emails that he sent the missives in response to questions students had emailed him. In Sunday’s email, Curran referenced dues that will come with the formation of a union—a longstanding point of contention between pro- and anti-unionization groups on campus.

If the April vote falls in favor of unionization, members of the union will eventually be required to pay dues.

Curran wrote in his email that United Auto Workers Union—a group that in Sept. 2015 partnered with a movement at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to form Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers—requires dues of at minimum 1.44 percent from its membership, adding that approximately 60 percent of dues and fees collected go directly to the international UAW, not to local Harvard students.

HGSU-UAW organizer Andrew B. Donnelly criticized Curran’s comments in an email, writing that, “We do not pay our dues of 1.44 percent until after we have democratically approved a contract.”

Curran’s second email, sent Monday, referenced the possible Columbia strike. Members of Against HGSU-UAW, a Facebook group for anti-union students, in recent days wrote social media posts calling the Columbia strike “unfair” and arguing that a bargaining unit would be unrepresentative of all students.

Columbia’s graduate student union voted 1,832 to 136 in favor of a strike on Saturday. The vote followed weeks of attempts by the union to force Columbia administrators to begin bargaining, including protests and threats of legal action.

If University officials do not respond to the bargaining request by April 24, a large number of Columbia’s roughly 4,000 graduate students say they will stop teaching and grading papers. Columbia’s union will not require all members to participate in the strike.

In his Monday email, Curran wrote that Columbia’s strike would affect its bargaining unit members regardless of their position on unionization.

“This strike potentially affects all members of the bargaining unit at Columbia, including those who did not vote to approve a strike or sign union support cards,” he wrote.

HGSU-UAW organizer Sam S. Klug said Curran’s email about the Columbia union’s strike “does not acknowledge” all relevant information.

“His email today, again, does not acknowledge the fact that Columbia’s administration is breaking the law by refusing to bargain,” Klug said. “[It] does not acknowledge the fact that 93 percent of the people who participated in the vote voted to authorize this strike.”

“The email also does not acknowledge all of the many steps that were taken before the strike that show that this is a last resort action,” Klug added.

Curran’s final email, sent Tuesday, responded directly to a question he wrote a student had asked about the makeup of Harvard’s proposed union. Inclusion in a bargaining unit is usually determined by the group petitioning for representation. Harvard’s proposed union includes graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants.

Curran noted that the defined unit aims to represent a wide variety of programs across the University.

“At Harvard, the United Auto Workers decided to try to represent a unit that includes undergraduate and graduate students from 11 schools and over 60 different degree programs—from PhD students serving as full-time research assistants in labs to undergraduate course assistants and hourly graduate student researchers,” he wrote.

Donnelly wrote in an email Tuesday that he thinks Curran’s three emails are troubling.

“Students all around this campus are having a robust discussion about whether we want a union,” Donnelly wrote. “For Paul Curran to intrude on this conversation with these short, misinformed, fear-mongering emails is startlingly inappropriate.”

Responding to HGSU-UAW organizers, University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote that the issue of unionization will have far-reaching effects on both current and future students.

“The issues surrounding unionization and whether students wish to be represented by the United Auto Workers are important and consequential for current students and for those who will come to Harvard in the future, yet will not have the opportunity to vote,” she wrote. “The University encourages eligible students to investigate both sides of this important issue and above all go to the polls and vote on April 18 and 19.”

—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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