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Amid Strike, Harvard Asks for Federal Mediation in Grad Union Negotiations

The graduate student union began its indefinite strike Dec. 3.
The graduate student union began its indefinite strike Dec. 3. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By James S. Bikales and Ema R. Schumer, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard is proposing engaging federal mediators to facilitate bargaining with its graduate student union, which has been on strike for more than two weeks over a deadlock in the negotiations.

Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced the proposal in an email to University affiliates Thursday — a day after Harvard administrators and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers failed to reach agreements on the three contract provisions that prompted the strike.

The University is suggesting that the two sides enlist the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent agency that promotes cooperation between unions and management through mediation, according to its website. Its services are free and are provided only at the request of both parties involved.

Garber wrote in the email that it is “common” to engage mediators after “exhaustive efforts” at the bargaining table have not produced an agreement.

“Although a mediator does not have authority to impose a final contract or to determine actual contract terms, a mediator can work confidentially with the parties with the aim of bringing the two sides to an agreement,” Garber wrote. “It would be our hope that the mediator would find ways to navigate past the barriers that both parties have encountered throughout many hours at the bargaining table in order to reach an agreement.”

“We are hopeful that HGSU-UAW will accept this opportunity to move the negotiations forward through mediation,” he added.

HGSU-UAW representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The union began its indefinite strike on Dec. 3, after failing to come to agreements with the University on healthcare, compensation, and procedures to adjudicate sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. The two sides met Wednesday for their first bargaining session since the strike began and came to six tentative agreements, bringing the total up to 18. None of the new agreements, however, cover the three topics that have served as the flashpoints of the strike.

Former National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV said that engaging federal mediators would be relatively normal, given the “public visibility” of the negotiations.

“Generally where collective bargaining is of some considerable import in the sense that there are a number of employees involved, new untested issues are presented, and where it may generally affect the public, it’s quite common in those instances,” Gould said.

Gould said that the helpfulness of meditation in contract disputes depends on the mindsets of the parties and the skillset of the mediator.

“If the parties are dug in, or if the mediator isn't particularly effective — one of the two — it could involve the mediator simply taking, transporting, coffee back and forth between one side or the other,” he said.

Gould added that it is important to note that mediators have no authority beyond issuing recommendations.

“A mediator simply relies upon persuasion, what the parties are willing to allow them to do, in contrast to arbitration, where the third party can bind the parties when they have differences with one another,” he said.

In Wednesday’s session, the union and the University agreed to contract provisions regarding discipline and discharge, strikes, grievance and arbitration, titles and classifications, an emergency grant, and housing.

The University also put forth updated proposals on two of the three key areas of contention: compensation and health care.

Harvard increased the amount of money it would put in a pool fund to assist student workers’ child care costs from $275,000 to $325,000 annually. The $50,000 increase does not match the union’s proposal, which demands the University provide $950,000 annually to help offset all costs student workers incur related to supporting their children — not only the cost of child care.

University negotiators also offered to annually place $100,000 in a pool fund that would reimburse student workers for medical costs that are not covered under the Student Health Plan.

The union’s Dec. 2 health care proposal calls on the University to help finance the costs of each member’s health care, rather than provide health care coverage through a pool fund. Under the union’s plan, Harvard would be required to reimburse student workers up to $500 for annual costs related to mental health in addition to funding 90 percent of each student worker’s dental costs.

In terms of compensation, Harvard increased the proposed rates at which it would raise student workers’ pay — though their raises still do not meet the union’s compensation proposal.

HGSU-UAW organizer Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, who facilitated Wednesday’s negotiations, wrote in an email to union members Thursday morning that the University’s refined compensation and health care proposals offer “only modest improvements” that “do not satisfy our core demands.”

“[T]he university once again did not walk in with substantive changes or a pathway to a contract on compensation, healthcare, and protections against harassment and discrimination,” Kennedy-Shaffer wrote.

“The strike continues as we head into winter break,” he added.

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

— Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at ema.schumer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emaschumer.

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