Some undergraduate teaching staff said they were previously unaware of the potential impact that ongoing contract negotiations between Harvard and its new graduate student union — which represents undergraduate teaching staff — will have on eligible College students.
Roughly 450 to 500 College students who work as teaching fellows and course assistants are part of the union, constituting the largest voting bloc in the union, according to Evan MacKay '19, the sole undergraduate member of the union's bargaining team. The union, Harvard Graduate Students Union — United Automobile Workers, has been negotiating with Harvard approximately every two weeks since October 2018 after forming nearly a year ago.
The union represents all undergraduate students employed by the University who hold instructional roles, meaning terms of the contract currently being negotiated between HGSU-UAW and Harvard will impact them. There is one undergraduate member on the 13-person HGSU-UAW bargaining committee.
Some undergraduate teaching staff, however, said they were unaware that they are included in the union’s bargaining unit and expected to pay union dues once the contract is ratified.
Ryan S. Jiang ’20, a teaching fellow for Computer Science 181: “Machine Learning,” said he could not recall interacting with the union, nor was he aware that undergraduate student workers would be covered under the contract once it is finalized.
“If there was, like, an opportunity to learn more about what they are doing and stuff like that, I would definitely be willing to,” Jiang said.
A HGSU-UAW information session for undergraduate students in March was attended by fewer than five undergraduates.
Jessica L. Eng ’21, a teaching fellow for Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science” last semester, said she received emails from HGSU-UAW while working as a teaching fellow, but she “personally did not interact” with the union.
“I think right now, a lot of their efforts — from the language of the emails — were more graduate-focused,” said Eng, who is currently comping The Crimson’s Arts board.
Eng also said she participated in organizing efforts on behalf of the union prior to last year’s vote and before she herself became a student instructor. This effort, however, had nothing to do with her own personal — or expected — future membership in the union.
Evan C. MacKay ’19, the only undergraduate on HGSU-UAW’s committee that negotiates directly with Harvard, said that the “miscommunication” or “confusion” among undergraduate members who are unaware that they are part of union’s bargaining unit is “unfortunate.”
“It's really important to us that student workers would know that they are part of the unit and have more clarity on that,” he said. “That's one of the reasons why we put forth proposals that would have student workers actually receiving an appointment letter that would tell them that they are in the unit.”
Not all current undergraduate teaching staff receive an appointment letter upon acceptance to their instructional positions, according to MacKay. A proposal by HGSU-UAW would require such letters be provided to new hires, along with information about the union, he said.
“We’re hoping that in future semesters, when we have a secured contract, that problem will be avoided,” he said.
MacKay said the divide between undergraduate and graduate student workers is partly a result of the Harvard administration’s efforts to “divide the undergraduate and graduate community.”
He cited a University proposal in October that would have excluded student workers who “did not meet a certain cap, in hours per week” from the bargaining unit.
“They have consistently put forth proposals that treats undergraduate and graduate students differently in how benefits might apply to them,” MacKay said.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard did propose a minimum average number of hours per week for student workers to be in the bargaining unit early in the negotiations. The union, however, rejected that proposal and the University withdrew it. The two sides reached a tentative agreement on union recognition in early November that includes all undergraduate teaching staff.
“The University has never disputed which classification of students would be included in this bargaining unit,” Swain wrote.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
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