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Harvard and Its Graduate Union Reach Two Agreements After Months of Deadlock

Harvard Graduate Students Union marked the launch of their historic bargaining sessions with the University in October 2018 by holding a "Bargainfest" celebration by the John Harvard statue.
Harvard Graduate Students Union marked the launch of their historic bargaining sessions with the University in October 2018 by holding a "Bargainfest" celebration by the John Harvard statue. By Joshua Y. Chiang
By James S. Bikales, Luke A. Williams, and Ruoqi Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Jan. 25, 2019 at 7:32 p.m.

After months of contract negotiations, Harvard’s graduate student union and the University reached tentative agreements on accessibility to employment records and resources for professional development Wednesday, union bargaining committee members wrote in an email Thursday.

The two agreements mark a moment of consensus between the two sides in a bargaining process that has otherwise been characterized by disagreement and deadlock. Union members have met with University officials once every two weeks since October. After coming to two agreements regarding the severability and recognition articles of the union contract on Nov. 7, the two sides remained at an impasse until this month.

Wednesday’s tentative agreements granted student workers the right to view their employment records including course evaluations that students write about teaching fellows, as well as files that document leaves taken by HGSU-UAW members. The employment records agreement also lets graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants petition Harvard to remove evaluations that are “horribly inaccurate” or “discriminatory,” according to a video posted on HGSU-UAW’s Instagram.

The other agreement — which secures some professional development resources for student workers — allows union members to “request options for additional training in areas where they feel like they want to enhance their work,” bargaining committee member Jenni K. Austiff said in the video. The University also tentatively agreed to compensate student workers for attending training sessions.

The HGSU-UAW bargaining committee hailed both agreements as “valuable protections and benefits to our members” in an email to union members Thursday, calling the University’s pledge to provide greater access to employment records a “critical component of job security.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard’s goal in contract negotiations is to work with the union to arrive at a contract that takes “into account the interests of both the members of this bargaining unit and the entire University community.”

“The University’s primary goal in these negotiation sessions is to ensure that this initial binding contract makes sense and is fair,” he wrote.

Despite Wednesday’s tentative agreements, however, disagreement persists between the University and the union on several other issues including sexual harassment policies. The union put forward a proposal on harassment and discrimination policies in November but quickly rejected a counter-proposal the University made days later, according to union representative Madeleine F. Jennewein. On Wednesday, the University made another counter-proposal, and the union once again declined.

Both the University and the union have not released the details of their respective sexual harassment and discrimination proposals.

The University’s counter-proposal drew criticism from bargaining committee members in their email to other union members Thursday.

“While the administration has made some incremental movement in increasing protections for student workers, their proposed process still leaves the final decision making in hands of administrators with no option for an impartial third party,” the committee wrote.

Swain wrote in an email statement the University’s counter-proposal “responds to concerns HGSU-UAW members have expressed and gives HGSU-UAW a seat at the table in ongoing efforts to strengthen policies and procedures to ensure a safe and healthy educational and work environment.”

It is unclear when Harvard and the union will agree on a contract, though the process could stretch on for months. At New York University — one of the first private universities to recognize a graduate student union and subsequently negotiate multiple contracts — the union and the school were at the bargaining table for 14 months before reaching an agreement on the union’s contract.

As negotiations continue, bargaining committee members are calling on student workers to communicate any suggestions and concerns they have to the committee.

“When people have stories they want us to hear ... we can transmit to the administration the reality of what is happening at this place,” bargaining committee member Hector Medina said in the video posted on the HGSU-UAW Instagram page Thursday.

“We are actively listening to our members,” Medina told student workers. “It’s a two-way street.”

Correction: Jan. 25, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the agreements reached during the Wednesday meeting marked the first time the University and the union had reached a consensus on an issue. In fact, the University and the union have previously reached a tentative agreement on two articles: Severability and Union Recognition.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Luke A. Williams can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @LukeAWilliams22

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.

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