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Grad Student Union Alleges University Engaged in ‘Regressive Bargaining,’ Hid Behind Trump Administration

Harvard's graduate student union sent a bargaining update to members Monday.
Harvard's graduate student union sent a bargaining update to members Monday. By Sara Komatsu
By Davit Antonyan, Crimson Staff Writer

After a Friday bargaining session, Harvard’s graduate student union accused the University of “hiding behind the Trump administration” to undermine contract negotiations in an email to members Monday.

Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and the University met for a bargaining session last Friday, joined for the fifth time by a federal mediator. No new tentative agreements were reached, and the two sides remain at an impasse over key issues including compensation and procedures for discrimination and harassment.

In Monday’s email to members, HGSU-UAW bargaining committee member Jennifer “Jenni” K. Austiff wrote that the University “has no intention of bargaining in good faith toward an agreement.” Austiff wrote that throughout the six weeks of mediated bargaining sessions, “the administration has refused to bring even a single proposal” regarding the union’s “core demand” of protections against discrimination and harassment.

HGSU-UAW has argued that its members should be given the option to raise complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination through a union grievance procedure — a dispute resolution mechanism outside Harvard’s extant internal channels, and one that could in some cases lead to third-party arbitration. The University, on the other hand, has insisted that these complaints be handled through internal discrimination procedures.

In Monday’s email, Austiff wrote that Harvard’s refusal to engage with the union’s proposal comes at a time of particular frustration, as colleges and universities across the nation await the imminent release of new federal Title IX guidelines.

“[Harvard is] continuing to deny these protections, even as Betsy Devos’s Department of Education is working to roll back Title IX protections and other civil rights protections on campus,” Austiff wrote.

Austiff also alleged in the email that, in recent bargaining sessions, the University has engaged in what she termed “regressive bargaining,” reneging on previously agreed upon proposals over issues such as workload provisions.

“We had agreed on a conceptual framework on this issue for nine months and had agreed on specific language for nearly 3 months—with language that had come from the administration itself,” Austiff wrote. “But yesterday, the administration rejected both the language and the principle of these workload protections.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the updates from the new bargaining session, citing the confidentiality of the mediation process.

Austiff further alleged that, under the National Labor Relations Act, “regressive bargaining” is illegal. She wrote that the University is relying on “the Trump National Labor Relations Board” — which is responsible for carrying out the law — to “not enforce student workers’ labor rights.”

Former NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV said in an interview that the behavior Austiff termed “regressive bargaining” does not constitute bargaining in bad faith, and thus, per the NLRA, is not illegal.

“To take a position that is less favorable to a union, which would be regressive bargaining, is not in and of itself an unfair labor practice,” Gould said.

“I’m not even sure that it could be said that Harvard is engaging in what would generally be called regressive bargaining based on these facts,” he added.

HGSU’s email also stated that the University will not guarantee a “union security” provision to ensure all student workers pay dues to the union.

“In contrast, the administration continues to insist on a ‘right-to-work’ provision that would starve our union of the resources that we need to represent student workers in grievances and bargain subsequent contracts,” the email reads.

Austiff wrote in the email that, after asking to meet with administrators to discuss these complaints, the University asked the union to instead file an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. She wrote that, given that the federal board is currently dominated by Trump appointees, bringing a charge before it might lead the NLRB to reverse the 2016 decision that permits student unionization at private universities across the country.

“The administration knows that to file a charge now would put all student workers at private universities at risk,” Austiff said. “They are waiting for the Trump administration to take away our legal rights.”

Gould said that asking HGSU-UAW to file such a charge could be illegal, especially without an explanation for the changed position.

“Now we know why they want them to file a charge here because the Trump Board will hold that the graduate students are not employees within the meaning of the law,” Gould said.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at

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