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With Harvard’s second unionization election fast approaching, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 sent an email to affiliates Thursday listing resources Harvard already provides absent a bargaining unit—sparking intense backlash from some union advocates.
The election, slated to take place April 18 and 19, will determine whether eligible graduate and undergraduate students can collectively bargain with Harvard. In the run-up to the vote, University administrators have walked a delicate line in communications to students: never openly declaring Harvard’s official position, but instead issuing repeated pleas that students read up on the issues and turn out to vote come April.
Unionization advocates have shown no such restraint, instead openly advertising the benefits of a union. Members of pro-union advocacy group Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers have particularly argued unionization would grant students a collective voice, enabling them to fight for the rights of international graduate students—which they say are under threat in the era of Donald Trump—and to call for reforms to the University’s processes for handling sexual harassment and assault allegations.
Garber’s email, like past missives, toed the line. But several resources he highlighted in the message appeared to target exactly these two pro-union arguments.
For example, Garber pointed to the work of the University’s Title IX officers. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences added an additional Title IX officer earlier this year.
“Please know that these resources are available to all students now,” he wrote. “They are not contingent on classification as an ‘employee.’”
Garber also mentioned two University resources specifically designated for Harvard’s international students: the Harvard International Office and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. He added the University has worked “tirelessly, often behind the scenes” to advocate for graduate students on Capitol Hill, fighting measures like the proposed tax on tuition grants—later erased from the final Republican-backed tax bill.
April’s election marks the second time eligible Harvard graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants will head to the polls. The University’s first unionization election, held in Nov. 2016, turned up more votes against unionization than in favor—but HGSU-UAW challenged that result, sparking a roughly year-long legal battle with the University.
The back-and-forth—which saw the overturning of the results of the first election, three rulings by the regional and national iterations of the National Labor Relations Board, and two separate appeals—ultimately led to the NLRB’s Dec. 2017 ultimatum that Harvard must hold a second election.
Garber’s Thursday email triggered the latest skirmish in the long-simmering saga.
Several pro-union graduate students took strong exception to Garber’s message. HGSU-UAW organizer Sam Klug wrote in an email that Garber’s message misrepresents and overestimates campus resources currently available to graduate students.
“Provost Garber's suggestion that Harvard's administration is doing as well as it possibly can to address issues that matter to students just does not line up with students' experience,” Klug wrote. “It's time for all of us to have a seat at the table.”
In the email, Garber wrote graduate students already weigh in on major administrative decisions sans a union via “elected student government” bodies. On campus, Harvard’s graduate students are represented by the Graduate Student Council, the Harvard Graduate Council, and their counterparts at each of the schools.
“Harvard students, individually and through elected student government, have long worked together with faculty and administrators to extend and improve student services,” Garber wrote. “Their collaborative efforts began well before paid organizers from the United Auto Workers came to our campuses.”
“We value these partnerships and look forward to building upon the progress we have made,” he added.
GSC Natural Sciences representative and HGSU-UAW organizer Jack M. Nicoludis wrote in an email that Garber’s missive overstated the Graduate Student Council’s ability to advocate for students.
“As someone who served on the GSC for 6 years, it hasn't been a very effective avenue for student input on issues like pay and healthcare,” Nicoludis wrote. “Neither the 1.5% pay raise of last year nor the 3% pay raise of this year were discussed with the GSC prior to the Dean’s announcement email to all of GSAS.”
Some Harvard workers also took issue with Garber’s email. John Perich, a representative for the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, criticized Garber’s assertion that, should the election go the union’s way, “each school’s dean and other leaders would be legally prohibited from working directly with individual students or with student government on these matters.”
"[The] HUCTW agreement spells out areas where employees and managers have the ability to make arrangements based on department needs,” Perich wrote. “So Harvard already has experience with a union contract that grants significant department-level flexibility.” HUCTW is the largest union on campus, representing approximately 5,000 of the University’s 6,000 unionized employees. Of Harvard’s nine extant labor unions, only HUCTW includes this type of provision in their agreement with the University.
In response to criticisms from HGSU-UAW and HUCTW, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in an emailed statement that Garber’s email “focused on incontrovertible facts” about unionization.
"Unlike union organizers, the University is legally prohibited from making unsubstantiated promises about what life with or without a union would be like for students,” Cowenhoven wrote. “The Provost's message therefore focused on incontrovertible facts about what it means to have a union, including the fact that all students in the unit would be covered by a single contract, the fact that students would pay dues or an equivalent fee, the fact that students cannot opt out of representation, and the fact that students would no longer have access to School-level channels for addressing certain matters.”
Cowenhoven also reiterated a message common to Garber’s email and to previous statements from administrators—an entreaty that all eligible students show up to the polls on April 18 and 19.
“We encourage students to carefully consider whether unionization is in their best interest and, most importantly, go to the polls and vote on April 18 and 19," Cowenhoven wrote.
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