Pro-Union Voters Seven Times More Likely to Approve of Strikes, Exit Polls Show

Harvard students who voted in favor of unionization were nearly seven times more likely to report they approve of strikes as a negotiation tactic than those who voted against.
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah, Molly C. McCafferty, Brian P. Yu, and Phelan Yu

By Dianne Lee

This is part four of The Crimson’s five-part series analyzing exit polling data collected during Harvard’s 2018 unionization election. Read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Harvard students who voted in favor of unionization last week were nearly seven times more likely to report they approve of strikes as a negotiation tactic for student unions than were those who voted against unionization, according to exit polling data collected by The Crimson.

Across all respondents to The Crimson’s survey, roughly half indicated they approve of student union strikes. Per the bylaws of international parent union United Automobile Workers, two-thirds of union members who cast a ballot must vote to authorize a strike for it to take effect.

The exit poll also showed pro-union voters were 13 times more likely to report approval of the UAW than were anti-union voters.

On April 18 and 19, eligible graduate and undergraduate student assistants voted to unionize, meaning Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW now has the right to collectively bargain with the University on their behalf. A count by National Labor Relations Board officials held April 20 showed 1,931 votes in favor of unionization and 1,523 against.

The Crimson conducted its exit poll on both days of the election, stationing reporters at the three voting locations in Cambridge, Longwood, and Allston for 78 percent of all hours the sites remained open. Reporters collected exit surveys from 1,295 voters, representing over a third of the voting population.

The 23-question survey asked respondents for their opinions on collective bargaining, politics, and campus issues. Unless otherwise noted, the data presented in this story has not been corrected for any possible response bias (see below for methodology).

One survey question asked whether respondents approve, disapprove, or have no opinion of strikes as a bargaining maneuver specifically for student unions. Overall, 52.1 percent of respondents reported approval of student union strikes, while 30.3 percent reported disapproval.

Of respondents who reported they voted in favor of unionization, the vast majority—70.6 percent—indicated they approve of strikes as a negotiation strategy. Just 11.3 percent of anti-union voters, by contrast, reported approving of strikes.

Applying these percentages to the official vote count suggests that, overall, 44.5 percent of voters likely approve of student union strikes.

By Dianne Lee

The NLRB recognizes two broad categories of lawful causes to strike. One category comprises economic reasons—for example, a union might go on strike to demand higher wages or benefits for its members. The second comprises labor reasons—for example, an employer’s refusal to bargain.

Four days before Harvard voters headed to the polls, graduate students at Columbia voted to approve a strike—which began April 24—in response to university administrators’ refusal to bargain with Columbia’s student union. Since April 20, a spokesperson for Harvard has repeatedly declined to answer a question asking whether the University plans to bargain with HSGU-UAW.

In the weeks before the election, union organizers often cited statistics showing that 98 percent of union-negotiated contracts are approved sans recourse to a strike.

Respondents’ opinions on striking varied significantly according to surveyed voters’ divisional affiliation within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Overall, Arts and Humanities respondents were most likely to report support for a strike, with 72.6 percent indicating they would approve of striking.

Sixty-five percent of Social Sciences respondents, 33.1 percent of Sciences respondents, and 20.5 percent of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences respondents reported a favorable opinion of strikes.

The survey also asked voters their opinion of the UAW, giving them the option to select boxes marked “Favorable,” “Unfavorable,” and “No Opinion.”

A plurality of overall respondents—44.1 percent—indicated they have no opinion of the UAW.

A similar statistic holds true for “Yes” respondents, 47.9 percent of whom indicated they have no opinion of the international union. Of remaining “Yes” respondents, 46.8 percent reported they hold a favorable opinion of the UAW, while 5.3 percent reported an unfavorable opinion.

By comparison, of students who voted against unionization, only 3.6 percent indicated they have a favorable opinion of the UAW, while 59.8 percent indicated they view the organization unfavorably. Around 36.7 percent indicated they have no opinion.

Harvard’s union voted to affiliate with the UAW in Sept. 2015 after an “affiliation committee” staffed by early organizers recommended the move. The committee’s stated reasons for the affiliation included increased financial and legal support.

Skepticism of the UAW figured prominently in arguments students against unionization made leading up to the the election. A poster attributed to a group called Liberals Against Unionization of Graduate-Level Harvard Students and pasted around campus the first day of the unionization election read, “I won’t tell you what to do, unlike the UAW.”

In response to these arguments, union supporters have in part cited what they call the UAW’s vast prior experience organizing graduate student unions. With the recent addition of HGSU-UAW, over 40,000 students have now formed unions affiliated with the UAW.

Overall, 12 percent of survey respondents indicated they have previously been members of labor unions, and 17.5 percent of respondents indicated they previously worked or were enrolled at a post-secondary institution that offered a union for students, researchers, or faculty.

Previous experience with labor unions had a small but measurable effect on people’s vote: of respondents who were formerly labor union members, 76.4 percent indicated they supported unionization. Of respondents who reported they had never been a member of a labor union, 69.1 percent voted in favor.

Similarly, of respondents who previously studied or worked at an institution with a faculty or student union, 71.3 percent indicated they supported unionization. Of respondents who reported they had not, 68.6 percent voted in favor.


The data presented in this story is entirely sourced from the exit poll of eligible voters The Crimson conducted during the two days of the April 2018 unionization election.

Crimson analysis of the raw exit poll data indicated voters in favor of unionization were more likely to fill out the survey than were voters who voted against unionization. Specifically, The Crimson calculated an oversampling factor of 1.32 for respondents who reported voting “yes.” The Crimson’s survey specifically asked students whether they voted in the Nov. 2016 election and, if so, whether they had changed their mind on unionization since the first vote.

Using the responses to these questions, The Crimson calculated the 32 percent oversampling by taking the percentage of respondents who reported they voted yes in both the April 2018 and Nov. 2016 elections (out of all respondents who voted in the Nov. 2016 election and indicated they did not change their minds in the interim), then dividing it by the actual percentage of voters who voted in favor of unionization in Nov. 2016. The Crimson utilized this response bias factor, in addition to a geographic correction that reweighted the data by polling site, to infer that approximately 50.6 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots April 18 and 19 voted in favor of unionization.

The official vote count Friday revealed that roughly 56 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor in unionization, leading to an overall oversampling factor of 1.23. Unless otherwise indicated, the data reported in this story is the raw data from the survey and has not been corrected for this apparent response bias.

Crimson editors Brian P. Yu and Phelan Yu conducted data analysis for this story. Questions regarding the survey or methodology can be directed to and

—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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