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Harvard research and teaching assistants' vote to unionize last week was unique in its scale and drew on a decades-long push to form graduate student unions, according to several labor experts and union organizers.
The election—Harvard’s second vote on the issue—took place April 18 and 19. Over the course of two days, more than 3,500 eligible students cast ballots to decide whether they should unionize as members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers. The final tally, determined by National Labor Relations Board officials on April 20, showed 1,931 ballots cast in favor and 1,523 against.
Temple University labor law professor N. Brishen Rogers said the size of Harvard’s student bargaining unit—which will include graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants—eclipses other successful organizing efforts at private universities.
“I believe it’s the first time we have seen a victory of this size at a major private sector university within recent memory,” Rogers said.
Both Rogers and former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV said that several legal and historical precedents spanning the course of decades made the election result last week possible.
In 2016, an NLRB ruling on graduate student unionization at Columbia University overturned a previous 2004 Brown University precedent in which the board ruled student assistants could not unionize.
Gould, however, pointed further back, tracing a line to the 1966 NLRB case regarding union election at the company Excelsior Underwear. That case generated a namesake rule stipulating an employer must generate and provide both the NLRB and the proposed union with a list of contact information for voters eligible to participate in a union election prior to the vote.
The Excelsior precedent later proved central to the NLRB’s decision to rule that Harvard must hold a second unionization election, Gould said.
Harvard held its first vote on the unionization issue in Nov. 2016; the final results of that election revealed more votes cast against unionization than in favor. But attorneys for HGSU-UAW objected to the result, contending University-generated voter lists were incomplete and that the 2016 vote should be overturned. Both the regional and federal National Labor Relations Board eventually determined Harvard's lists did not meet agency standards and demanded a second vote.
Rogers said the course of events at Harvard is indicative of a larger movement taking place in the education sector. He pointed to adjunct professor unionization movements at other universities and to recent public school teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia.
“Education is such an important part of the economy right now, and so many workers are in education, but many workers in education are not being treated very fairly, and that is actually harming educational processes,” Rogers said. “That’s one of the reasons why workers have been unionizing in the education sector."
Rogers said he thinks HGSU-UAW’s success is also a “victory” for the broader graduate student unionization movement.
“Graduate students have been organizing in greater numbers in recent years, and the Trump administration has really changed a lot of people’s views around the political economy in this country and around questions like unionization,” Rogers said.
“It’s certainly a very, very big step forward for graduate student unions,” he added.
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