As Harvard’s graduate student union gears up to hold a historic strike authorization vote beginning next week, it remains unclear how much support there is among its members for a strike.
The vote — which is expected to begin Oct. 15 on Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers’ one-year anniversary of bargaining with the University — will require two-thirds of voting members’ support in order to allow the negotiating committee to call for a strike if it deems necessary.
The union has designated all graduate and undergraduate students who are employed, have been employed, or expect to be employed by Harvard as eligible voters. Those voters will be required to sign a union authorization card to be able to cast their ballot.
When HGSU held its unionizing vote in April 2018, roughly 56 percent of the 3,400 student workers who voted supported unionization.
Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, an HGSU bargaining committee member, said that union members have “overwhelmingly supported” a strike authorization in initial discussions.
“People are tired of waiting for fair wages and protections from harassment and discrimination and tired of having to settle for inadequate health benefits,” Kennedy-Shaffer said. “We’re voting now so Harvard administrators can hear our voice and start giving us proposals which are acceptable to student workers.”
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that HGSU’s calls for a strike are “unwarranted.”
“The University continues to approach these negotiations in good faith and has offered substantive proposals that address the concerns raised by HGSU-UAW throughout these negotiations,” Swain wrote.
Swain added that the University has not changed its approach at the bargaining table since the union began organizing for the strike authorization.
In July, HGSU-UAW supporters penned an open letter to administrators from its members supporting a strike authorization vote, which was presented during a bargaining session.
The open letter – signed by more than 300 student workers – included supporters across schools, with the majority of signatories coming from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, according to a Crimson analysis.
In the past several weeks, union organizers in departments across the University have posted fliers, held information sessions, and engaged in one-on-one conversations with student workers to drum up support for the strike authorization, according to Denish K. Jaswal, a union organizer in the Philosophy department.
Jaswal said these conversations have allowed the union to get a “foot in the door” with members who may not have been regularly following the union’s communications, and to make sure these student workers do not feel “disconnected” from the union’s efforts.
“The first thing is just getting people up to speed on the conditions, like how bad the conditions really are, such that the strike authorization vote seems necessary,” Jaswal said. “Ultimately, it's supposed to be a democratic process.”
Jaswal added that meetings with student workers have allowed her to address many union members’ concerns about potential faculty retaliation if they decide to strike.
Striking student workers would be legally protected from retaliation by the National Labor Relations Act. But Jaswal said that her colleagues are concerned that faculty could take retaliatory action in more subtle ways.
“They can exercise power in ways that are not really accountable,” Jaswal said, referencing possible actions like scheduling fewer meetings with student workers or not providing timely feedback.
Marisa J. Borreggine, lead HGSU organizer in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said she has heard similar concerns during the weekly “tea time” information sessions she holds in her department.
“Having a conversation with your adviser, it can be scary, because a lot of advisers don't have a lot of information about this kind of stuff,” Borreggine said.
She said she has started to have conversations with faculty in her department about the possibility of a strike.
Not all union members, however, may support the strike. More than 70 percent of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences voters and the majority of students in the Sciences voted against the bid for unionization in the first place, according to a Crimson exit poll during the unionization vote last year.
Though 86 of the 300 signatories to the open letter are in Sciences departments, only 5 percent of all signatories come from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Petitioners studying Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences roughly comprise a combined 60 percent of those who signed the letter.
The Crimson’s exit polling during the unionization election showed much stronger support for unionization among Humanities and Social Sciences students, and Borreggine acknowledged that support for the strike authorization vote is stronger among Humanities students.
“Humanities generally seem more supportive, but honestly, our support has really grown since the election,” Borreggine said. “I think that there’s support growing in STEM.”
Jaswal said it is harder to connect with students in the Sciences because many of them are “siloed off to their individual labs,” and they tend to have slightly better wages and benefits.
Louis Robert “Bobby” Hollingsworth IV, a research assistant in Structural Biology, said the contract provisions the union is fighting for would be “fantastic,” but disagrees with the mechanism of a strike.
“As a STEM student, especially because my research is somewhat, if not very, competitive, I think it's only to my disadvantage to strike,” Hollingsworth said. “It could mean my project getting scooped, it could mean me delaying my graduation times.”
Hollingsworth said the research targets in his field are “pretty well-defined,” so if any competitor beats him to a discovery, he will be out “years and years of research.”
“It’s hard to justify me going on strike because I hold back my own prospects, but also scientific progress in my field by skipping out on work,” Hollingsworth said.
Kennedy-Shaffer acknowledged that a strike authorization is a “huge decision” and that going on strike remains a choice that “no one” wants to make.
“Strikes are disruptive in many ways, which is why we have tried so many other avenues to convince Harvard to agree to a fair contract,” Kennedy-Shaffer said. “The bargaining committee would not call for a strike authorization vote or a strike except as a last resort.”
“We as a bargaining committee will continue working to secure these crucial protections without the need to resort to a strike,” he added.
A strike would not mean that the participants completely cease all work on Harvard’s campus. Student workers would continue with their “academic efforts” even if they strike during their paid work time commitments, according to Kennedy-Shaffer.
Borreggine said that certain STEM research assistants could still continue in their labs during a strike, categorizing that work as student time rather than worker time. Those students could strike during the roughly 20 hours they are considered employees.
“When you're a student, and when you're a researcher, it's very blurred,” Borreggine said. “So you still would be able to — if you're someone who's in biology, and you have to deal with your cultures and like need to come in — you still do have those 20 hours a week to come in as a student and tend to your research.”
Former National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV said that student workers would likely continue their “academic duties” during a strike.
Gould said he was unsure of how protections under the National Labor Relations Act against retaliation for a strike would apply at Harvard. He said he would be “surprised” if HGSU appealed to the NLRB to enforce the protections, given that it would give the NLRB a chance to review its 2016 decision that allowed graduate student workers at private universities to unionize. Some believe that ruling may be overturned by the current board members if given the opportunity.
“An underlying problem here is that in order for anybody to be protected, you'd have to go to the Labor Board,” Gould said. “But the union undoubtedly does not want to go to the Labor Board because the Labor Board would use that as an opportunity to say that graduate students are not employees within the meaning of the Act.”
James L. Warner, a Biological and Biomedical Sciences student at Harvard Medical School, said he has not made up his mind yet on whether to support the strike authorization.
“I'm not fully convinced that this isn't just sort of posturing on both sides,” Warner said. “Because I think highly of both sides on this argument, it's a little confusing to me that they can’t actually sit down and get something done.”
Warner said regardless of his vote, if a strike is authorized, he will “definitely respect it.”
“Mama didn't raise no scab.”
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.