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Without a Contract, Harvard Graduate Student Union to End Strike Jan. 1

Strikers march past the John Harvard Statue, which bears a sign supporting the union.
Strikers march past the John Harvard Statue, which bears a sign supporting the union. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s graduate student union will end its strike Dec. 31 and return to work in the new year without a contract, the union's bargaining committee announced in an email to members Monday afternoon.

Though the union and University have yet to reach an agreement, the two sides enter 2020 weathered by the longest graduate student strike in recent history. The parties will meet for their next bargaining session on Jan. 7, joined by federal mediators.

During the nearly four-week-long strike, union and University representatives met for just one three-hour-long negotiating session. During that meeting, they came to six tentative agreements, though none concerned the core issues behind the union’s strike: compensation, healthcare, and an independent third-party grievance procedure for adjudicating sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. Following the session, the University proposed — and the union accepted — an offer to engage the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The strike will officially conclude at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, according to the bargaining committee’s email. In its email, the committee wrote that the strike had laid a “new foundation to finish negotiations.”

“In response to our strike, the administration—for the first time ever—announced that they intend to reach a contract by the end of January,” the email read. “We now expect the administration to put all their energy into reaching a fair agreement.”

The University has not formally committed to a timeline for reaching a contract, though it has repeatedly noted its commitment to ongoing bargaining with Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers. University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain reiterated that sentiment in an emailed statement Monday.

“The University is pleased HGSU-UAW accepted our invitation for mediation. We remain committed to addressing concerns raised during these ongoing negotiations,” he wrote.

Prior to the strike, HGSU-UAW and the University had met for 28 negotiating sessions since bargaining began in Oct. 2018. Though the two sides had reached 12 tentative agreements in those sessions, none related to the core issues identified by the union. Citing intractable disagreements with administrators, union members overwhelmingly approved a strike in late October.

When a Dec. 3 strike deadline set by the union passed without an agreement, union members headed to the picket line. They withheld their teaching responsibilities — including holding office hours, grading assignments, and proctoring final exams — and halted paid research not included in their academic programs throughout the College’s reading and finals periods.

Instead, striking union members and their supporters held rallies at Harvard’s Cambridge and Longwood campuses. Protesters also picketed in front of loading docks and delivery entrances across Harvard, seeking to block deliveries.

After many students returned home for winter break, the union encouraged its members to participate in a “virtual picket line” by contacting administrators. For the final three weeks of the strike, union members who performed an average of four hours of strike duties per week became eligible to receive benefits from the United Automobile Workers’s strike fund.

In its email Monday, the bargaining committee criticized the University’s handling of the strike, writing that Harvard administrators had shown their “true priorities.”

“They decided to threaten student workers instead of agreeing to protections against workplace abuse; they decided to spend money on police details instead of healthcare; and they decided to sacrifice educational quality by canceling exams and moving to Scantrons, instead of agreeing to fair pay,” the bargaining committee members wrote.

Swain declined to comment on the union’s allegations.

During the strike, several academic departments across the University emailed graduate student teaching staff asking whether they were participating, sparking backlash from the union. University administrators also asked some hiring managers to confirm with prospective teaching staff whether they plan to begin teaching on time next semester — a move legal experts said may have violated labor law.

Harvard also accumulated significant costs over the course of the strike. Cambridge Police Department billed Harvard around $185,000 in security fees associated with the first two weeks of the strike, a figure that does not include potential costs related to Harvard University Police’s presence.

Over the course of picketing, union members and their allies also repeatedly criticized administrators for failing to schedule a bargaining session until two weeks into the strike.

The union garnered the support of dozens of faculty, politicians, and members of Congress, as well as unions in Boston and worldwide. The union’s backers held protests in four cities across the nation to pressure Harvard Corporation members in conjunction with the one bargaining session held during the strike.

“For nearly a month, we’ve demonstrated our power as workers essential to the university’s teaching and research mission,” the bargaining committee wrote in Monday’s email. “Over the course of our strike, we’ve shown the university administration that Harvard works because we do.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera contributed reporting.

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

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