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Among Harvard’s Unions, Working Together Helps Everyone 'Win More'

By James S. Bikales and Ruoqi Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers


As Harvard’s dining service workers carried out their 22-day strike in October 2016, they did not stand alone on the picket line. Joining the UNITE HERE Local 26 members were affiliates from various other University unions.

This show of solidarity has played out many times over the years — from unions’ efforts to support non-Harvard UNITE HERE hotel workers during a November 2018 protest in Boston, to backing the new graduate student union throughout its organizing efforts and into contract negotiations the past few months.

For many union organizers, no matter the different types of employees they represent, their work as labor organizers on Harvard’s campus is intertwined, both in advocacy efforts and the fine print of their contracts.

In particular, after helping the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers win a seat at the bargaining table last year, leaders of other campus labor organizations said they now hope the graduate students’ new contract can pioneer provisions that will benefit their own workers in the future.


Nine bargaining sessions in, Harvard and its graduate student union have put forward more than 40 proposals total and reached at least four tentative agreements – with no agreements yet reached on economic issues such as wage, healthcare, and housing benefits.

As the union negotiates its first contract, HGSU-UAW can base its proposals on agreements made previously with graduate student unions from other universities across the country. But HGSU-UAW has another tool in its arsenal: the provisions already included in Harvard’s other union contracts.

“Our grad union grew while standing on the shoulders of giants on campus,” union organizer Felix Y. Owusu wrote in an email. Those “giants,” he said, include the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers; Service Employees’ International Union Local 32BJ, which represents security guards and custodians; Harvard University Security Parking and Museum Guards Union; and UNITE HERE Local 26.

HGSU-UAW negotiators said their work is in part possible because of previous unions’ efforts.

“Our proposals to strengthen protections against discrimination and harassment — such as by banning discrimination on the basis of immigration status or past criminal history — follow in the footsteps of Local 26, who secured protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation before Massachusetts enacted protections for LGBTQ workers,” Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15, another member of the HGSU bargaining committee, wrote in an emailed statement.

As part of HGSU-UAW’s push for student workers to be allowed to pursue third-party arbitration in sexual harassment and non-discrimination conflicts, the union has referred to the use of grievance procedures – a dispute resolution mechanism implemented in collective bargaining agreements – outlined in other Harvard unions’ contracts.

“The other unions on campus – including UNITE HERE Local 26, SEIU 32BJ, and HUCTW – have all negotiated contracts that secure their members’ rights to address issues of discrimination and harassment through a fair and neutral grievance procedure,” bargaining committee member Ege Yumusak ’16 wrote in an email.

Other unions on campus have been eager to help out the graduate students, according to their leadership.

“We think that the language that they get will be an extension of where we are today,” said Ed Childs, chief shop steward of UNITE HERE Local 26.

“We sat down with them, and showed them our contract, especially about respect clauses dealing with sexism and racism and homophobia,” Childs said. “They really liked it. I think they took a lot of ideas from our contract.”

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College at the City University of New York, said that drawing from language in past contracts is common practice in collective bargaining.

“There have been collective bargaining agreements in higher education involving graduate assistants since 1970,” Herbert said. “We have quite a long record involving contracts that can be examined to figure out how a specific issue was dealt with and I'm sure these kind of questions have come up in contracts and there's model contract language that can come from those contracts.”


Just as the older unions have supported the graduates students’ negotiations, HGSU-UAW has advocated for other unions during their organizing efforts.

When UNITE HERE began its 2016 strike, HGSU-UAW — which had just initiated its public campaign in the spring and would go on to fight two additional years for their eventual unionization — stood in solidarity with dining service workers along with other labor groups.

“As we organized to form our union, we had the privilege of watching, learning from, and supporting Local 26’s October 2016 strike,” Owusu wrote.

Roxana Rivera, the vice president of SEIU 32BJ, said her union has seen that when they work together with other unions, they “win more.”

“We stood in solidarity with the food service workers when they went out on strike. It was at the same time that we were going to the bargaining table for security officers and janitors,” Rivera said. “We stood strong with them and held some rallies and marches with them. They were able to win a good contract. Security officers and janitors were, too.”

Last March, as the second vote on graduate student unionization was approaching, HUCTW, UNITE HERE Local 26, HUSPMGU, and SEIU 32BJ together endorsed graduate students’ unionization efforts.

“We gave a huge amount of support to them when they [held the] vote for the union,” Childs said. “We attended their rallies and…spoke at their rallies and also had them come to our rallies, especially during the strike.”


Nearly a year later — as HGSU-UAW and Harvard work toward negotiating the first labor contract crafted between the University and graduate students in its history — other unions are looking to the developing agreements as a map for their future bargaining efforts.

“We see it as a positive change to have a larger union presence on campus — not only for HGSU members and other unionized staff, but also for the non-union staff,” Carrie Barbash, HUCTW’s president, wrote in an email. “Unions help raise the standard of living for everyone, not just the members they represent.”

Curt E. Rheault, president of HUSPMGU, said he is looking forward to hearing the results of HGSU-UAW’s negotiations because they often can help direct future contract negotiations.

“If they share the contracts…then that helps us out a lot because some things we didn't even know we should be pushing for, that we didn't know was available to us,” he said. “When you say, ‘hey, listen, by the way, we did this with our union, it was very well received by management, you should try that with your management,’ it helps it makes our life a lot better.”

Childs said the contract provisions HGSU-UAW is able to negotiate will be particularly important given today’s political landscape.

“Their contract is a big reflection and extension of our contract, but it's also a much more difficult period, the period of Trump, anti-workers sentiment,” Childs said. “That's why we want to help them out as much as possible and their contract will reflect where ours will pick up next contract.”

SEIU 32BJ will negotiate a new contract in the next presidential election year, and UNITE HERE Local 26 will begin new negotiations in 2021. Rivera emphasized the importance of the precedents HGSU-UAW will set in SEIU 32BJ’s negotiations.

“We are supportive of things that help our efforts for the whole University and in negotiations,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing that we're going to be addressing with the environment of the 2020 election and what's going to happen there and issues affecting immigrant families.”

HGSU-UAW organizers say the union has embraced its role in creating new possibilities for other unions.

“The other unions on campus have set remarkable examples to follow, and our mutual support of one another on issues of immigration, non-discrimination, and healthcare will continue to build our strength as we organize for a healthier and more equitable Harvard,” Owusu wrote.

Correction: Feb. 13, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Owusu is a union bargaining committee member. In fact, he is a union organizer.

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

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

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