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Grad Union Expects to Start Negotiating With Harvard 'Early' This Semester

Graduate Student Unionization Debate
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.

Harvard's brand-new graduate student union may soon face University administrators across the bargaining table.

Justin Bloesch, a member of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers bargaining committee, wrote in an email that organizers are “currently in the process of refining our comprehensive bargaining agenda and expect to start negotiating with Harvard early this semester.” 

If HGSU-UAW does begin pushing for a contract this semester, it will cap off an eventful — and historic — year. 

In Jan. 2018, following two years of legal battles, the National Labor Relations Board invalidated the results of Harvard’s first unionization election — held in Nov. 2016 — and mandated that the University hold a second election that spring.

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When the polls for that election closed on April 19 after two days of voting, a slight majority — just under 56 percent — of graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants had voted to unionize. It was the first time this had happened in Harvard's more than 380 years of existence.

After 11 days of uncertainty, former University President Drew G. Faust and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced Harvard intended to honor the vote and bargain in good faith with HGSU-UAW.

Following that announcement, the union was free to begin preparing to negotiate with Harvard in earnest. In May, students elected a 13-member bargaining committee. Union affiliates also formed a committee focused on combating sexual assault — dubbed "Time's Up" — and a committee meant to protect workers’ civil and human rights. 

Through the end of the semester and into the summer, all three committees kept busy. Bargaining committee members developed and sent out a survey quizzing students on what they hoped to see result from negotiations. Respondents rated the importance of approximately 50 potential bargaining goals ranging from childcare subsidies to free dental and vision insurance. Bloesch wrote that “hundreds of student workers” from “across the globe” filled it out. 

The Time’s Up committee and the civil and human rights committee, meanwhile, held town halls and listened to student feedback. 

In making these preparations, the HGSU-UAW bargaining committee is wading into relatively new and untested waters for student unions at private-sector institutions. Though graduate students at Brandeis reached a contract with their university administrators in August, that contract is not yet certified, making NYU’s graduate union — Graduate Student Organizing Committee-UAW — the only union to successfully complete a round of negotiations at a private university.

The Brandeis and NYU contracts both feature increases in compensation, improved access to mental health services, and access to dental care. 

Anne E. Pasek, a former contract negotiator and spokesperson for GSOC-UAW, said universities and graduate unions each possess the tools to set the tempo of negotiations. 

If they want to slow the pace of talks, she said, administrators can argue certain demands do not fall under the umbrella of negotiable topics or can purposefully make it difficult to schedule time for negotiating sessions. And if the union wants to fight back, it could use public pressure like a threatened strike to push for a speedy end to the bargaining process, Pasek added.

“Negotiations often follow the rhythm of a school year, so a strike authorization vote when papers are going to be graded at the end of the year is a powerful tool,” she said.

Bloesch wrote that, in addition to surveying its members, HGSU-UAW has been “researching best practices from existing collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions across the United States.” 

William A. Herbert, who directs the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York, wrote in an email that HGSU-UAW will likely prioritize goals that organizers highlighted in the run-up to the April election as negotiations with Harvard move forward.

“Among the strategic questions will be which proposals are primary, and which are secondary,” Herbert wrote. “It is likely that HGSU-UAW's strategy will be based on the issues that were raised during the organizing campaign, and based on survey responses from members of the bargaining unit.”

Issues the union has raised in the past include teaching stipends, housing, and childcare. Bloesch also cited “protections for survivors of sexual harassment” as a potential negotiating demand.

Before negotiations begin, HGSU-UAW members will vote on a bargaining agenda culled from survey results. Bloesch did not comment on when the results will be released.

Correction: Sept. 10, 2018

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of a photo caption accompanying this article misstated the affiliation of Jae Hyeon Lee. He is a graduate student in the Department of Physics, not the Department of Chemistry.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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

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