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Some Medical School Students Wary of Harvard's New Union

The Gordon Hall of Medicine stands at the center of the Harvard Medical School's quadrangle.
The Gordon Hall of Medicine stands at the center of the Harvard Medical School's quadrangle. By Justin F. Gonzalez
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Luke W. Vrotsos, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: May 1, 2018 at 6:11 p.m.

Some graduate students at Harvard Medical School say they feel wary of Harvard's newly formed union, with at least a few in Longwood—the location of the Medical School campus—expressing a desire to be excluded from the bargaining unit.

Fifty-six percent of eligible student assistants voted on April 18 and 19 to authorize Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers to collectively bargain with Harvard on their behalf. National Labor Relations Board officials certified the tally on April 20, counting 1,931 ballots in favor of unionization and 1,523 against.

Exit polling conducted by The Crimson suggested medical students were significantly less likely to vote in favor of unionization than were students attending other University schools.

The data, which was not adjusted for response bias, indicated that 61.5 percent of medical students voted against unionization, marking one of the highest percentages of "No" voters at any of Harvard's schools. By contrast, 66.4 percent of respondents from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—representing the largest bloc of eligible voters—indicated they cast ballots in favor of the union.

After the election, some experts noted the size of Harvard’s union is unique among student unions at private universities—the proposed bargaining unit at Harvard includes over 5,000 students. By comparison, the graduate union at New York University—which is the only graduate student union at a private university that has successfully negotiated a contract to date—does not include research assistants from its medical school.

Medical Sciences Ph.D. student John L. Pulice III ’15 said he thinks a proposal to redefine the bargaining unit would gain significant support among students.

“At the medical school, people who are opposed to the union have been the most vocal,” he said. “I have heard many people even after the vote wondering if there is anything we can do to mitigate the effects of this. There’s a lot of frustration and maybe confusion.”

Medical Sciences Ph.D. student Noah Bloch, a vocal opponent of unionization, wrote in an email he would welcome an effort to exclude Longwood from negotiations.

“I certainly plan on being involved in this process once someone can figure out how to get it started,” he wrote.

Experts, though, say this type of split would not be immediately feasible. Former National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV said Wednesday the bargaining block cannot be changed at this point in the unionization process.

Issues relating to “the scope of the unit” cannot be raised for at least a year after the election results are announced, Gould said.

"Even then, beyond those factors, they would have to show that there’s something very different about their situation that would make them a skilled craft homogenous group of people that are separate and apart from the others,” he said.

Some Medical School students expressed support for the union.

Union organizer Hector F. Medina-Abarca, a Systems Biology Ph.D. student, said he disagrees with the notion that Longwood and Medical School students broadly oppose the union.

“The students [I have] talked to are very happy about the election result,” Medina wrote in an email. “Here in SysBio, I’d say students are excited about the next steps."

“As far as student engagement, the change from the election in 2016 is palpable in SysBio alone: we had [more than three] volunteers/organizers this round and no anti-union activity, whereas the previous election only I was helping with the unionization movement and there were a couple students here speaking out against the union,” Medina added.

Union organizer and Medical Sciences Ph.D. student Madeleine F. Jennewein wrote in an email that there are good reasons her classmates should support the union.

“I think there is a misconception that the things Humanities students need are more acute,” she wrote. “The benefits of a union—increased wages, better healthcare, benefits for student parents, and more support for diverse students—will accrue to everyone, regardless of their affiliation.”

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

—Staff writer Luke W. Vrotsos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @luke_vrotsos.

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