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Harvard Graduate Students Union Threatens Strike Authorization Vote

Several individuals participated in a sit-in at University Hall in support of the Union March happing right outside the building.
Several individuals participated in a sit-in at University Hall in support of the Union March happing right outside the building. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

Members of Harvard’s graduate student union declared their intention to hold a strike authorization vote if Harvard does not change its approach to bargaining negotiations in an open letter addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow Monday.

Union organizers from Harvard Graduate Students Union–United Automobile Workers presented the letter — which has garnered more than 300 signatures — to the University’s representatives at the beginning of their Monday bargaining meeting. The letter referenced the signatories’ growing dissatisfaction with the state of contract negotiations, which began in October 2018 and have continued throughout the summer.

“If the Harvard administration’s bargaining team continues to put forward untenable positions for negotiation and prevents us from attaining a fair contract that responds to core issues of our campaign, HGSU-UAW intends to hold a strike authorization vote,” the letter reads.

The letter cites enduring stalemates over harassment and discrimination resolution procedures; wages; and medical benefits as issues that have yet to see agreements.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement Wednesday that HGSU members’ calls for an authorization vote are “unwarranted.”

“The bargaining process has allowed both the University and HGSU-UAW to gain clarity on each other’s positions. In response, both sides have worked together to offer meaningful advancements for student workers,” Swain wrote. “Although the University and HGSU-UAW still have areas of disagreement between them on issues important to both sides, the University disagrees with any characterization that these negotiations have not seen progress.”

Students, however, contended that the University’s proposals and responses were inadequate.

“If they don't want to bargain over those issues, then I think we need to take stronger action than we have up to this point,” Matthew R. Volpe — a Chemistry and Chemical Biology Ph.D. student who read the letter aloud at Monday’s meeting — said in an interview Wednesday.

Medical Sciences Ph.D. student Alexandra C. Stanton, who drafted the letter, said Wednesday that it is a “good next step.”

“As organizers, we collectively decided that this made sense as a good next step, to show our collective voice and show that we're serious about getting the things that we're asking for in bargaining,” Stanton said.

A vote on strike authorization is not the same as a vote on a strike itself. Rather, an affirmative vote for strike authorization would simply empower the bargaining committee to call for a strike when it deems necessary.

The HGSU-UAW bargaining committee distributed its letter in an email to its members Tuesday along with several updates from the Monday bargaining session. The union representatives said they discussed a number of issues during the meeting, including the ones mentioned in the letter that have not yet seen agreements.

The email specifically noted that negotiators spoke about gaps in coverage for specialists, mental health, and dental care on the student health plan. In particular, organizers argued that Harvard’s $50,000 total annual dental subsidy would only reduce individual students $558 cost by $12.50.

Swain wrote the University has offered proposals on wages and benefits that are consistent with those in contracts between other universities and their school workers.

“The University has also offered proposals on many new benefits for student workers that HGSU-UAW has identified as important to its members,” Swain said. “This includes the creation of funds totaling more than half a million dollars to assist bargaining unit members in covering the costs of dental and dependent health care, as well as child care.”

The union’s newsletter update also discussed deadlock on the HGSU’s proposed “neutral, third-party grievance procedure” in cases of sexual harassment. Committee members wrote that they would not give up their right to strike — as proposed by the University — without a “trade” for a “fair grievance process.”

This dispute has long been a point of contention between union and University negotiators. Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution currently adjudicates formal sexual harassment allegations.

“The University is concerned that HGSU-UAW’s proposed approach would create a separate set of processes for union members compared to all other students,” Swain wrote. “Additionally, the University would point out that an independent arbitrator would have no legal power to issue sanctions or any form of punishment on an offending faculty, student or employee.”

Swain wrote that the University “remains committed” to strengthening its resources for addressing and preventing instances of discrimination and harassment.

Despite the continued impasse on some issues, the union’s bargaining committee wrote in the newsletter that there was significant progress in Monday’s meeting in negotiating international student rights, intellectual property rights, personal days, and travel reimbursement.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Jamie S. Bikales contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang contributed reporting.

Correction: July 19, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain's middle initial as "M." instead of "L."

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