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Graduate Student Union Organizers-Turned-Negotiators Learn to Bargain

When representatives from Harvard’s newly-formed graduate student union sat down in front of the University’s negotiators in their first bargaining session last October, they brought to the meeting enthusiasm for their cause, an ambitious list of 80 bargaining goals, and a set of democratic negotiating principles framing leadership as shared among the entire team.

But they lacked something other Harvard unions had brought to the table in previous negotiations: experience. Of the thirteen-member team, only one person had participated previously in union contract negotiations.

Five months earlier, members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers elected a bargaining committee to survey students on their priorities, set the agenda for the contract negotiations, and, as they did recently, represent student workers at the bargaining table.

Though the elected members all had experience in the Harvard graduate student community, only one — Cherrie N. Bucknor — had bargaining experience. While many members were well-versed in union organizing skills, they had to get up to speed on how to approach University negotiators at the bargaining table.

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Over the summer, the committee met with staff members from United Automobile Workers – their organizational partner – to learn the ropes.

“We meet between two and three times a week — it’s sometimes more — to prepare for negotiations, to go over potential scenarios, to learn about the material and the issues that we’ll be raising, so that we have a whole holistic understanding of what's going on and the picture that we're going to need to paint,” said Ashley B. Gripper, a graduate student and bargaining committee member who was new to bargaining.

Gripper said that organizing for the union also gave her important knowledge that she could take into the bargaining room.

“Organizing for me prior to running for [the] bargaining committee was also extremely helpful because in organizing and dealing directly with folks, and talking to folks about what they care about and what their concerns are, I feel like that was training in and of itself,” she said.

Jennifer K. Austiff, another first-time negotiator on the bargaining committee, said that in preparation for the sessions, she spoke with two members of the bargaining committee from the graduate student union at New York University.

She said they gave her advice about how to “work as a group” and “take care of ourselves” during the bargaining process, which they told her could be strenuous.

“They also gave us some insights about what it's like to sit across from the...administration, and how that feels and how to prepare for that,” Austiff said.

Once the bargaining sessions began in October, the committee started meeting before every session to review the points it intended to bring up in the upcoming meeting.

“We'll practice questioning each other on the proposals that we're giving, so that way we feel more prepared and confident with our extemporaneous answers to questions that might come up,” Austiff said.

Five months after the start of negotiations, the union and the University have met nine times over the bargaining table. According to Gripper, each session is “really interesting in different ways.”

While neither side has revealed many specifics of their proposals and counter-proposals, HGSU-UAW has published Instagram stories regularly following the session giving updates on the negotiations’ progress.

At each bargaining session, a different member of the committee acts as the lead spokesperson, according to Austiff. She said that the union strives for democratic representation among its membership, and this principle also applies to the bargaining committee itself.

“There's no hierarchy within the bargaining committee, so we felt it would be fair to have everybody take turns at leading the sessions, and also to help balance everybody's workload,” she said.

Bucknor, the committee member with bargaining experience, previously worked at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, during which time she served as union steward for the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union in Washington, D.C. (called the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers at the time).

“I believe my prior experience has definitely helped me throughout this process,” Bucknor wrote in an email. “Most importantly, it has shown me the amazing things that are possible with a union contract, what it took in the room to get them, and gives me insight into how to negotiate for some of those same wins in our contract.”

She noted, however, that HGSU-UAW’s negotiations with the University have been different than her previous experiences in one “very important” aspect“At CEPR, we were able to work through issues quickly and efficiently,” she wrote. “Here at Harvard, the administration makes incremental moves at the table and has refused to meet with us as frequently as we believe is necessary, dragging this process out unnecessarily.”

University spokesperson Rachel Traughber wrote in an emailed statement that the articles being negotiated are complicated and that they influence “virtually every academic School and Department at Harvard.”

“It’s a first contract, which means that every article is being negotiated from scratch,” she wrote. “Many of the items being negotiated by HGSU-UAW and the University are complex and take time to be vetted, including outside of bargaining meetings, in order for the University to respond appropriately.”

“With that in mind, the University’s primary goal in these negotiation sessions is to ensure that this initial contract makes sense and is fair, taking into account the interests of the University and all of its students, including the 5,000 student workers represented by HGSU-UAW,” she added.

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

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

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