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As Harvard Graduate Students Return to Work, Experts Talk Future of Negotiations

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 Ellen M. Burstein and Callia A. Chuang, Crimson Staff Writers

As members of Harvard’s graduate student union return to work after nearly a month on strike, labor experts say the union may have ended their record-setting demonstrations due to a variety of factors, including economic pressure and growing hopes of reaching a contract agreement.

Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers representatives announced in an email to union members Monday that strikers would return to work Jan. 1 without reaching a contract with the University.

Student workers began their strike on Dec. 3, the last day of the fall semester. Over the past several weeks, union workers have picketed in Harvard Yard and in the Longwood medical area, calling for the University to acquiesce to their demands in contract negotiations.

Mark G. Pearce — Executive Director of the Workers' Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and a former Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that upholds U.S. labor law — said the strike may have ended due to financial considerations.

“Some strikes can last longer than others because there are strike funds available depending on the capabilities of the National Union,” Pearce said. “Other strikes fold because the economic pressure that ensues is too much for the strikers to withstand.”

William A. Herbert, Executive Director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, a New York-based think tank, said he believed the agreement between the University and HGSU-UAW to enter federal mediation could be a reason the union decided to end the strike.

“A strike is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself,” Herbert said. “I suspect that the reason for ending the strike is that the ends of reaching most of what was being sought has been successful. And that now it's just trying to finish up and reach a final agreement.”

The union and the University agreed to engage federal mediators to facilitate collective bargaining between the University and the union beginning with their Jan. 7 negotiating session. In an email to members of HGSU-UAW, the union’s bargaining committee wrote that Harvard’s commitment to begin mediation served as a “new foundation to finish negotiations.”

Former NLRB Chairwoman and former Deputy Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Wilma B. Leibman said she believes it is a “very good sign” that the University and the union have agreed to federal mediation.

“The mediators certainly give it their all to try to help the parties reach an agreement, to try to find ways to deal with difficult issues that are really keeping them apart,” Leibman said. “It's entirely possible that the mediator got them to agree to stop the strike and give bargaining another chance.”

Pearce noted that federal mediation is often an effective way for both sides to reach an agreement.

“The mediator is always striving for a settlement, striving for the common ground in the negotiations, and sometimes a mediated process is the best way to get to that common ground,” Pearce said. “Oftentimes it's mediated negotiation that will bring to light that which would stimulate settlement.”

Experts also pointed to other challenges the union may face as potential factors in their decisionmaking, including a new rule proposed by the NLRB in late September that would reverse the decision that first granted graduate students the right to unionize.

Leibman said this proposed rule could affect bargaining between the University and HGSU-UAW.

“There's always the lingering question whether Harvard is going through this in good faith trying to reach an agreement, which I would hope, or whether they're trying to run out the clock until the NLRB does something, and then Harvard wouldn't be legally obliged to do something,” Leibman said.

Leibman added that the outcome of the negotiation sessions would rely on both parties’ willingness to negotiate.

“I would hope that both Harvard and the union really have a good faith effort to make collective bargaining work here… I’d like them to be able to show the Trump majority on the NLRB that collective bargaining can work,” she said.

Even if the NLRB’s proposed rule is implemented, Herbert said private sector institutions – including private universities like Harvard – have the option to “voluntary recognize” graduate student unions. In recent years, Brown University and Georgetown University both used the voluntary recognition process to facilitate collective bargaining with their graduate employees.

When the NLRB announced the new proposal, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain said Harvard was “reviewing the proposed rule” to establish how it may impact negotiations.

Even though the union ended its strike without reaching a contract, the strike set new records. HGSU-UAW went on strike for 29 days – from Dec. 3 to Dec. 31 – making it the longest strike in higher education since 2012, according to Herbert.

Regardless of the outcome, Pearce said HGSU-UAW’s strike showed the University the union’s solidarity and highlighted the University’s need for graduate student workers.

“The reason why there’s a right to strike is because it's designed to stimulate negotiations through economic pressure,” Pearce said. “If that is the result, then striking is worthwhile.”

Former NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV said HGSU-UAW’s strike could have national implications for future actions by graduate workers.

“I think that it does demonstrate to both to Harvard itself and the country at large the seriousness and importance of these issues and the resolve of a union like this one to endure both hardship and delay in getting to its objective,” Gould said.

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @EllenBurstein.

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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