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Provost Garber Outlines Harvard’s View on Union Negotiations One Week Before Strike Deadline

Mass. Hall
Senior members of Harvard's central administration, including University Provost Alan M. Garber '76, work in Massachusetts Hall.

UPDATED: Nov. 27, 2019 at 12:51 a.m.

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote in an email to University affiliates Tuesday that Harvard’s graduate student union’s planned strike will neither “clarify” either side’s position nor “resolve areas of disagreement.”

The email comes as the two sides hold their final scheduled bargaining session before the strike deadline on Dec. 3. Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers announced their plans earlier this month to go on strike if a contract is not reached. A bargaining session last Friday failed to resolve any of the core issues that have deadlocked the negotiations, including compensation, health benefits, and a procedure to resolve sexual harassment and discrimination claims.

Garber — the top administrator overseeing negotiations — detailed the University’s positions on several of these issues in the email, also noting that Harvard’s full proposals have been posted online, as have several HGSU proposals.

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HGSU did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Garber wrote that the current negotiation timeline is consistent with first contract bargaining between universities and graduate student unions across the country.

“The fact that we are still meeting 13 months after negotiations began is not due to a lack of good faith by the HGSU-UAW or the University, but is rather a reflection of the complexity of negotiating a first contract with such a large and diverse union,” Garber wrote. “At other universities, first contracts with graduate student worker unions have taken 12-18 months.”

Garber also noted that the University’s benefits and compensation proposals on the table “compare well” with other peer institutions, and that Harvard’s proposal would constitute a seven percent increase in pay for teaching fellows over three years, and an eight percent jump for research assistants.

In response to the union’s proposals on healthcare, the University has proposed creating pool funds to support union members’ health insurance and dental health plan premium payments, as well as child care.

“The proposed financial assistance funds are greater than those found in comparable union contracts at other universities and add to the benefits already provided to Harvard students,” Garber wrote.

HGSU, on the other hand, has called for greater annual compensation increases for its members. According to their most recent proposal posted to their website, they are seeking an annual payment increase of 4.25 percent on top of a first-year salary increase of 8 percent more than current pay rates for research assistants. They have proposed a 5 percent annual increase for salaried teaching fellows. The union has also called for complete full health, mental health, dental, vision, and prescription drug coverage for all eligible members and their dependents.

Another issue of contention has been the union’s proposal for handling claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. The union has argued that student workers should be given an option to raise such complaints through a union grievance procedure — a dispute resolution mechanism outside of current internal Harvard channels, and one that could eventually lead to third-party arbitration.

Garber wrote in his email that the University believes the union’s proposal is “inconsistent” with the University’s legal obligations under Title IX.

“Federal Title IX regulations require that the University provide an equitable process and that trained investigators conduct investigations,” Garber wrote. “A labor arbitration is not an investigation, nor is an arbitrator an investigator. Rather, labor arbitration is an adversarial process between an employer and a union to settle potential contract violations.”

Garber also noted the University’s concerns that the union has proposed the right to open grades and academic assessments to grievance procedures if the union member feels it was “retaliatory in nature.” He wrote that he does not believe an arbitrator would be able to sufficiently make judgments on academic matters.

As soon as the union announced its strike authorization vote in October, administrators began to urge faculty to prepare for the potential impact of the strike. According to Garber’s email, departments across the University have started to implement “contingency plans” for the impending strike.

“Faculty (and staff) are free to support the union’s goals, but they also must fulfill their academic responsibilities to their students, just as students must fulfill their academic requirements and continue to make progress toward their degrees,” Garber wrote.

In his email, Garber wrote that those who do not work should not expect to be paid, and that departments will have to continue tracking workers’ hours in order to comply with federal grant rules.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in a separate email to undergraduates and their parents Tuesday afternoon that the College is taking steps to “minimize any negative impact” on students’ coursework and research.

“In the event of a strike on or after December 3, your course leaders will communicate directly with you about any changes to courses or other academic activities,” Khurana wrote.

Khurana wrote that though each student is responsible for fulfilling their academic obligations, the College respects all perspectives on the strike.

“While HGSU-UAW members have the right to strike, student workers who are striking should be in touch with their faculty members and their advisors,” Khurana wrote. “Students who are not members of the HGSU-UAW also have a right to decide how they may choose to support the strike.”

Roughly 450 to 500 undergraduates who work as teaching staff are members of HGSU.

Garber and Khurana’s emails followed one sent by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay to faculty and staff. In the email, Gay highlighted the preparations being taken to prevent the strike from disrupting the “academic progress of our students.”

Gay wrote that the Office of Undergraduate Educatation has been working with Directors of Undergraduate Studies and Department Administrators to create guidance for faculty on a variety of issues that could come up during a strike. Her email specifically contained a link to guidance for tracking grant-funded research during the strike, and referenced several other FAQs to address different teaching activities expected to be impacted during the strike.

“Among the topics they have addressed are exam proctoring, grading for large courses, grading for junior tutorials and other special courses, and protocols for asking your teaching staff if they will be teaching once the strike is underway,” Gay wrote.

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

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