Labor of Love: The Five-Year Road to Unionization

As Harvard and its new union prepare to begin negotiations, current and former union organizers remember the five-year march to unionization as convoluted, lengthy, and difficult.
By Morgan J. Spaulding
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Molly C. McCafferty

For many union organizers at Harvard, the sunny afternoon of Aug. 20, 2016 was largely unremarkable.

Organizers with Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers spent the afternoon printing signs, chatting with voters, and planning events—work many of them had done almost every day for three years.

But off campus, a handful of organizers were taking a break from their work to bear witness to a different type of graduate student union. Two of their own, Rudi Batzell and Cristina V. “Tina” Groeger ’08, were getting married—exchanging vows while surrounded by friends and colleagues.

The wedding bore a distinct union touch. At the reception, guests could take photos with signs meant to resemble HGSU-UAW endorsement cards. In lieu of the union’s name, the cards bore the words, “Tina and Rudi’s Wedding.” Of the approximately 100 guests at the wedding, around a third were involved in some way with HGSU-UAW.

“One of the organizers, her wedding toast was this elaborate union analogy between union of two people and a labor union,” Groeger said. “So it was definitely very present at the wedding.”

Not every day during the five-year process of forming Harvard’s graduate student union was as happy as Aug. 20. Groeger, Batzell, and scores of other students spent the better part of their time at Harvard arguing student teaching and research assistants deserve a seat at the bargaining table, a process often marked by squabbles with administrators, delays, and setbacks.

But this spring, after hundreds of one-on-one discussions, one contested election, two hearings, and three National Labor Relations Board rulings, those students achieved their long-awaited goal. On April 18 and 19, 2018, 56 percent of eligible graduate and undergraduate students voted to accept HGSU-UAW’s petition to bargain with the University on their behalf.

As Harvard and the union prepare to begin negotiations, current and former union organizers remember the five-year process as convoluted, lengthy, and difficult—but ultimately worth the final result: the first student union in Harvard history.


Though the unionization effort first entered the public eye in April 2015, its roots stretch back several years before that.

The organizing effort began in the aftermath of the Occupy Harvard movement, according to Summer A. Shafer, one of the seven founding members of HGSU-UAW. During that campaign, which launched in Nov. 2011, student activists—many of whom later became union organizers—set up camp in Harvard Yard in an effort to bring attention to economic inequality on campus. After several months of protests, activists were forced to leave the yard due to extreme weather conditions.

Organizer Elaine F. Stranahan said a group of Occupy organizers’ goals shifted towards unionization in the winter of 2011 after “the camp actually literally blew away.”

“We changed and we morphed,” she said.

Early union advocates began meeting in the basement of red-brick Robinson Hall to craft an organizing plan.

Shafer said union organizers “learned to keep things very secret” during that early phase of the effort, nervously watching passersby from their basement bunker.

“They were so cloak and dagger, too, those meetings. It was like, everyone was on tenterhooks,” Shafer said.

“We were literally in the basement with the bars over the windows,” Stranahan added.

Shafer and Stanahan said the group’s first challenge was to convince graduate students of the need for a union—all without making their effort public. Those involved eventually decided to start a campaign to limit the size of graduate student-led course discussion sections. The number of students enrolled in each section had ballooned as the University faced budget challenges after the 2008 financial crisis; union advocates hoped to limit enrollment to twelve students per grouping.

The push, called the Harvard Teaching Campaign, was designed to “draw attention to the kinds of things that a union could potentially intervene in,” according to early organizer Steven A. Squibb.

The campaign had its own website and organizers distributed colorful posters emblazoned with a large “12,” one of which still hangs on the second floor of Emerson Hall. Graduate students also delivered a petition to Massachusetts Hall demanding smaller section sizes.

Many departments, including Romance Languages and Literatures, English, and Linguistics, eventually adopted the size limits, marking an early victory for the fledgling group. Groeger said, however, that the University’s response to the campaign was ultimately less than satisfying for organizers.

“They said, ‘Okay, Gen Ed. courses—maybe we’ll limit them to 15, but there’s no guarantee.’ It wasn’t all that we advocated for,” Groeger said. “So I think those were mutual frustrations with not feeling like we had adequate channels to be heard, to shape the policies that governed our workplace, and also just to sort of be taken seriously as employees.”

Shafer, Groeger, and Squibb now say the campaign was never a separate entity from HGSU-UAW. Shafer called the campaign “a front for the union.”

Alongside the Teaching Campaign, union organizers started to join existing graduate student groups around 2013. In particular, many organizers sought to join the Graduate Student Council, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ main student government body.

The 2013 GSC was run almost entirely by union organizers—Shafer was elected GSC president, and union organizers John Gee and Benjamin A. Franta also won seats on the council as divisional representatives. At the time, Shafer called their election a “surprise coup.”

“We wanted to normalize the need for a union,” she said.


During the 2014-2015 academic year, the group of organizers started to “bring up the idea of a union more explicitly.”

This phase also saw divides within the ranks of organizers over the right path forward. Perhaps the most contentious issues was the group’s 2015 decision to affiliate with international organization the United Automobile Workers. Earlier that year, the union established an affiliation committee to explore all possible affiliation options, including beginning a stand-alone group, joining one of Harvard’s existing unions, and joining an international union.

Eventually, members decided in an online vote to pursue affiliation with the UAW.

“The UAW was the obvious choice for us, mainly because they represent the most graduate students in the country,” Groeger said. “The UAW at that point was really leading the fight for private university graduate student unionization.”

Shafer, who said she was initially skeptical of the UAW, said organizers thought the international union’s legal and financial resources would provide needed help during the push to unionize at Harvard.

“It was clear that there was going to need to be a lot more buy-in on the legal end in terms of funding,” she said. “If we’re going to have a sustained legal battle, we’re going to have to make this as professional as possible.”

By Brian P. Yu

Though Shafer said most organizers “ended up agreeing” the UAW would serve union members’ best interests, the fractures caused by disputes over affiliation did not go away overnight.

After the union affiliated with the UAW, Stranahan and Shafer said some skeptics from the old guard of organizers—many of whom were concerned with a lack of a written agreement from the UAW—were ousted from the effort in a series of “email [list] purges.”

“I barely made it through the first purge, and then I kind of kept getting re-purged,” Stranahan said. “But I was very neutral.”

Many of the organizers still involved after the turnover remain active in the union effort today.


In the spring of 2016, HGSU-UAW began publicly campaigning for an election on the issue of unionization in earnest. Per National Labor Relations Board policy, their first task was to convince a majority of eligible students to sign cards authorizing a vote over the unionization question.

From Sept. 2015 to Feb. 2016, organizers canvassed Harvard’s campus obtaining signatures. Over 60 percent of eligible teaching and research assistants from across Harvard’s schools eventually signed voter cards.

HGSU-UAW’s efforts to push for an election gained impetus from national developments. In August 2016, the NLRB overturned a Bush-era decision and reaffirmed its earlier stance that student assistants should be recognized workers under the National Labor Relations Act. Under the new ruling, private universities must recognize any union of student assistants that successfully wins an authorization election.

After the ruling, University and union representatives began talks to plan a Nov. 2016 unionization election.

In the months leading up to the vote, some individuals and loosely organized groups of students raised concerns about the potential union through forums, blogs, and, most notably, a Facebook group called “Against HGSU-UAW.”

Jae Hyeon Lee, a graduate student in the Department of Physics, argues against unionization at a debate on the issue hosted by The Crimson in early 2018.
Jae Hyeon Lee, a graduate student in the Department of Physics, argues against unionization at a debate on the issue hosted by The Crimson in early 2018. By Kai R. McNamee

Students opposed to unionization said they feared three things in particular: strikes, which they argued might imperil students’ research or their relationship with supervisors; dues, which all members of the bargaining unit would have to pay; and the UAW, which some felt was not an appropriate organization to represent Harvard’s teaching and research assistants. Members of Against HGSU-UAW also argued they did not have the resources to make an adequate case against the union given its support from UAW.

Eligible students headed to polling stations in Cambridge and Longwood for the first time on Nov. 16 and 17, 2016. While some complained of long lines at the Cambridge location, far more consequential concerns would linger and mar the election result in subsequent days and months.

Just after the vote, officials determined just over 1,000 ballots remained under challenge—meaning NLRB employees could not initially determine whether the students who had cast those ballots were eligible voters. After prolonged negotiations between the University and the union, the number of contested ballots fell to just over 300—still a significant sum.

Uncertainty about results of the Nov. 2016 election stretched on for days, then weeks, then months.

On Dec. 22 2016, regional NLRB officials tallied all the votes that both sides had agreed to consider valid. The preliminary result showed that 1,456 students voted against unionization, while 1,272 supported it.

“It just dragged on for months, and then we got the final vote count, and it looked like we weren’t going to be successful,” Groeger said. “And that was a really devastating moment.”

Both Harvard and HSGU-UAW eventually filed objections with the NLRB regarding the 2016 election. In briefs, union attorneys argued the University-generated eligible voter list was inadequate and incomplete and urged the NLRB to overturn the election.

University officials, meanwhile, contended NLRB officials had improperly invalidated a single ballot because the student who cast that vote drew a smiley face on the paper slip and wrote a short message to the vote counter.

After hearing arguments from both sides, regional NLRB hearing officer Thomas A. Miller wrote in his April 2017 recommendation that Harvard had “not substantially complied with voter list requirements.”

He wrote that, if the outstanding ballots did not change the election’s results, Harvard should hold a new election.

The University appealed the initial result twice in the subsequent months—once to the regional NLRB and once to the federal Board. Both bodies ultimately sided with the union, deciding in July and Dec. 2017 respectively that the 2016 voter list did not meet agency standards.

Following the national ruling, the remaining ballots were unsealed and counted in Jan. 2018, resulting in a final tally showing 1,526 votes against unionization and 1,396 in favor. Because the final count broke against unionization, the University and the union—as mandated by the NLRB ruling—began planning a new election.


On April 20, 2018, five years after the clandestine meetings in Robinson Hall, Shafer received a text informing her the votes from Harvard’s second-ever unionization election had been officially tallied.

This time, those in favor outnumbered those opposed.

“We were kind of stupid when we saw the message,” Shafer said. “We were going back and forth between hysterically crying and running around in circles, happy.”

Many things about the second election were different from the first.

In the year-and-a-half between the two elections, union organizers argued new developments on campus increased the need for collective bargaining. In 2017, GSAS announced lower than usual stipend increases for graduate students, sparking arguments from organizers that a union would ensure pay stability. Union organizers also made the case that the proposed union would advocate for improvements to benefits packages and would increase protections for students bringing allegations of sexual harassment.

Some organizers also argued Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency made eligible voters more aware of the potential benefits of collective bargaining.

“The people who have been organizing for the union have been some of the most vocal when it comes to speaking out against things Trump has been doing,” union organizer Jack M. Nicoludis said. “I think that really helped us motivate.”

HGSU-UAW also advocated against Trump-era policies. After a travel ban placed on certain countries prevented several Harvard affiliates from entering the United States in Jan. 2017, HGSU-UAW’s International Student Working Group advocated for the creation of a hotline to advise students affected by the policy.

“We couldn’t just wait for the next presidency,” Nicoludis said. “We needed to make sure our voices were heard not just at Harvard—for our working rights at Harvard—but also just within the U.S.”

On April 18 and 19, 3,454 eligible voters journeyed to three polling stations in Cambridge, Longwood, and Allston with textbooks, messenger bags, and strollers in tow. After 16 total hours of ballot-casting, union advocates and opponents alike waited for a final tally.

Union and University officials gathered at the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Federal Building in Boston on April 20 to count the ballots.

Union organizer Yueran Zhang was one of several observers who spent the afternoon of the count scribbling furiously in a notebook, checking NLRB officials’ count against his own tally of the bottle-green ballots stacked on three tables in the front of the federal building’s auditorium.

Yueran Zhang, a PhD student in Sociology and a supporter of the union, stands outside Boylston Hall.
Yueran Zhang, a PhD student in Sociology and a supporter of the union, stands outside Boylston Hall. By Ellis J. Yeo

While the growing piles of “yes” ballots formed a comforting sight for union advocates at the first two tables, Zhang’s table ended up yielding less clear-cut results.

“Sitting there and watching the third table—for me, it was like a nightmare,” Zhang said. “That was just torture. I quit halfway. I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I just left the room.”

At 3:35 p.m., NLRB official Eugene M. Switzer announced a final tally of 1,931 ballots cast in favor of unionization and 1,523 against. Union organizers—many of whom had been involved with the effort since the early days of secret meetings and poster-making—burst into fits of applause and tears.

Early organizers were not present shared in the melee of emotions when they heard the result.

By then, Groeger and Batzell had both finished their stints as graduate students and union organizers.

Now a lecturer at Lake Forest College in Chicago, Groeger said she first heard the news while teaching a class.

“It was exactly the moment when I took a break halfway through my class, and I checked my phone, and I got a bunch of messages saying, ‘We won!’” Groeger said.

“It was very hard for me to continue the rest of the day, but I held it together,” she added.

Zhang was less successful at keeping his composure.

“I cried. I cried a lot,” Zhang said.


Despite the successful election, the union had one last hurdle to face: Would Harvard decide to bargain with the fledgling group?

For 11 days following the vote, University representatives repeatedly declined to say.

The silence came during a challenging period for unionization movements at other private colleges and universities. In the months preceding Harvard’s second election, administrators at Columbia, Yale, University of Chicago, and Boston College had all refused to open negotiations after student assistants on their campuses voted to unionize.

At Columbia, administrators’ refusal to bargain with its student union prompted student teaching and research assistants to embark on a week-long strike at the end of April. Some organizers said they feared Harvard would follow the same path.

“I remain a holdout. Until they engage in their first successful act of collective bargaining, I am afraid that Harvard’s going to end up the way of the Columbia administration,” Shafer said in an April interview.

Despite organizers’ concerns, Harvard ultimately broke from the mold.

On May 1, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and University President Drew G. Faust announced the University would uphold its commitment to bargain.

“In light of the outcome of the vote and the existing NLRB precedent, Harvard is prepared to begin good-faith negotiations, guided by our fundamental commitments as an academic institution,” Garber wrote.

Both before and after Garber and Faust’s announcement, HGSU-UAW began making preparations to head to the bargaining table. Almost immediately after the vote count, the union sent out an email soliciting nominations for its bargaining committee—the group that will soon begin negotiating with the University. On May 9 and 10, students voted to elect the 13-member group.

HGSU-UAW has also sought to build on issues they highlighted during the campaign. The union recently formed a “Time’s Up Committee” to advocate for policies meant to combat sexual harassment on campus.

After spending five years laser-focused on forming a union, organizers must now move into a new phase of work. Union advocates will now work to negotiate a favorable contract.

Looking back on the unionization effort, Stranahan said the length of the process was difficult for early organizers in particular.

“We had people who for years and years and years went every week to a basement meeting that seemed endless, that was difficult, that was trying, that was emotionally difficult at times,” she said.

Many long-time organizers, though, said this year’s result was well worth the wait.

“It was a validation of the work that I’d been doing during grad school,” Nicoludis said. “It was me feeling like there was hope.”

Groeger admitted the union has come a long way since she and Batzell were graduate students—but she said the body’s work is not finished.

“There are still a lot of hurdles, I think, before getting a first contract,” she said. “But I would say the organizers now are doing amazing work. And the task is always just to keep organizing, right?”

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

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

GSASUnionizationCommencement 2018