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In Historic Move, Harvard Teaching and Research Assistants Vote to Unionize

A sign directs students to voting places during Harvard's second unionization election April 18.
A sign directs students to voting places during Harvard's second unionization election April 18. By Amy Y. Li

UPDATED: April 20, 2018 at 4:30 p.m.

In a historic move, Harvard teaching and research assistants have voted to form a union.

The results of a unionization election held April 18 and 19 showed 1,931 ballots cast in favor and 1,523 against, per ballot tallying conducted at the National Labor Relations Board regional office Friday. Roughly 56 percent of ballots counted Friday fell in favor of unionization.

Barring challenges to the result, this vote means roughly 5,000 eligible students can now begin to collectively bargain with the University as members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers. The installation of a student union is unprecedented in Harvard history—and the result reverses the outcome of the University's previous Nov. 2016 unionization election, which showed more votes against unionization than in favor.

The Crimson previously collected and analyzed exit polling data suggesting that a small majority—50.6 percent—of eligible students who cast ballots voted in favor of unionization. With the April vote, Harvard joins a small handful of private universities nationwide who have seen a union form without voluntarily granting that union recognition.

[The Crimson conducted exit polling throughout the day April 18 and 19, but analysis ultimately proved the election too close to call. Read and view the results here.]

The vote count Friday began 9:41 a.m. in the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Federal Building in downtown Boston, the site of NLRB offices. Shortly after NLRB officials announced the final tally, the room broke into loud cheers.

The 2018 election, held throughout the day April 18 and 19 at three different polling sites across campus, marked the second time Harvard’s student research and teaching assistants have voted on whether to collectively bargain with the University as members of HGSU-UAW.

The University previously held an election in Nov. 2016. The results of that election saw a final tally of 1,526 votes cast against against unionization and 1,396 cast in favor. But lawyers for HGSU-UAW challenged that outcome, sparking more than a year of legal battles between Harvard and the would-be union. The NLRB ultimately mandated in Jan. 2018 that the University must hold a second election.

Approximately 5,050 students were eligible to vote in the 2018 election. Students cast 3,454 valid votes in total over the course of April 18 and 19. The result generated three void ballots, or votes the NLRB decided to invalidate.

Students cast 146 ballots "under challenge." A ballot comes under challenge when NLRB officials are unable to immediately determine the eligibility of the voter who cast that ballot.

The NLRB did not need to resolve the eligibility of these voters' ballots because the union's margin of victory—408 votes—was larger than the number of challenged ballots. This meant the challenged ballots could not have affected the outcome of the election.

HGSU-UAW members wrote in a press release Friday that the victory "caps a multi-year effort." The press release notes that, with the conclusion of the Harvard vote, more than 15,000 academic workers have chosen UAW representation across the past four years. The release states that roughly 75,000 academic workers are now represented by UAW nationwide.

Several Harvard graduate students said in the press release they are thrilled by the outcome of the election. The result also generated a wave of celebratory posts on social media.

"We have been organizing for a long time," Public Policy Ph.D. student Niharika N. Singh said in the press release. "Winning our union today means we can finally start to make improvements in our working conditions."

Abraham J. Waldman, another Harvard graduate student, said in the release he and other union advocates feel "energized" by their victory Friday.

"This has been an incredibly long haul," Waldman said. "As hard as we worked to win, we know that this is just the beginning."

"We are confident that our union will be good for us and good for the University and we expect Harvard... to negotiate in good faith," he added.

[The Crimson maintained an online article constantly updated with voter interviews throughout the 2018 unionization election. Look back on the two historic days here.]

University spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven sent an emailed statement Friday reiterating the results of the final election and stating the University appreciates students' "engagement."

"Harvard appreciates student engagement on this important issue," the statement reads. "Regardless of the outcome, this election underscores the importance of the University's commitment to continuing to improve the experience of our students."

"We want every student to thrive here and to benefit from Harvard's extraordinary academic opportunities," the statement continues.

Lawyers from Morgan Brown and Joy, the firm that represented Harvard in debating the results of the 2016 election, declined to comment Friday. Representatives for the NLRB Office of Congressional and Public Affairs also declined to comment.

The 2018 challenge ballots initially comprised two groups: the first consisted of approximately 190 “Green Dot” ballots, cast by voters who did not vote at their assigned polling place. The NLRB assigned every eligible voter to one of three on-campus voting stations—one in Cambridge, one in Longwood, and one in Allston—prior to the start of the election.

The remaining 144 ballots initially identified as being under challenge—called “not on list” or NOL ballots—were cast by students whose names were absent from University-generated voter lists.

Union and University representatives on site in NLRB offices agreed to set aside the NOL ballots unless the margin between “yes” and “no” votes was smaller than 144.

Challenge ballots formed a significant point of contention in Harvard’s 2016 election; University officials and union advocates sparred at length over the eligibility of some voters who cast their ballots under challenge. In that election, around 1,000 ballots initially came under challenge, above the margin of votes that could have affected the results.

—This is a developing story. Check for updates.

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

—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.

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

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