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Panelists Criticize Harvard’s Negotiations with Grad Student Union at IOP Event

A group of panelists criticized Harvard's posture in negotiations with its graduate student union at the Institute of Politics Wednesday evening.
A group of panelists criticized Harvard's posture in negotiations with its graduate student union at the Institute of Politics Wednesday evening. By Steve S. Li
By Raquel Coronell Uribe and Kevin A. Simauchi, Contributing Writers

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse and President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Sara Nelson criticized Harvard for its stance in ongoing negotiations with Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers at an Institute of Politics event Wednesday.

Greenhouse and Nelson argued that institutions like Harvard should not wait for the National Labor Relations Board to implement a rule that would exempt “graduate students who receive financial compensation” from being defined as workers. The widely-expected decision would effectively overturn a previous NLRB ruling upholding the right of graduate students to unionize.

The union —which engaged in a month-long strike in late 2019 before returning to work at the beginning of the year — remains in talks with the University on a contract. The sides have yet to strike an agreement that addresses the three major provisions that prompted the strike: compensation, health care, and grievance procedures for discrimination and sexual harassment complaints.

In an interview prior to the event, Greenhouse and Nelson cited the possibility that Harvard may find a legal technicality to not recognize the HGSU-UAW.

“Harvard did not agree to a so-called union security clause which would require all, you know, grad teaching assistants to contribute towards the union,” Greenhouse said.

Nelson agreed, stating that the exclusion of this clause is “kind of a backdoor way to not recognizing a union.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment in response to Nelson and Greenhouse’s criticisms.

HGSU-UAW representatives distributed a flyer at the event titled “Why is Harvard hiding behind Trump!?," which cited concerns about Harvard allegedly “consistently violating labor law.”

Boston Globe reporter Katie Johnston moderated Wednesday’s panel discussion with Greenhouse and Nelson, which was followed by an audience discussion.

Despite their criticisms, Greenhouse and Nelson said they believe the University has a “conscience,” contrasting Harvard to the University of Chicago, which has declined to negotiate with its graduate students.

Andrew M. Bergman, a graduate student in applied physics and HGSU-UAW member, disagreed with Greenhouse and Nelson’s assessment of Harvard during a back-and-forth at the forum.

“As an entity, they are not behaving as though they have a conscience,” Bergman said.

Nelson also spoke about labor issues emerging from the coronavirus epidemic, citing the reluctance of Republican congressmen to provide health care-related government assistance.

“I think that what the coronavirus epidemic is doing is exposing the hypocrisy of the healthcare debate,” Nelson said. “The coronavirus is demonstrating, literally, the foundation of unions—that an injury to one is an injury to all—because this is not something that you can hide from.”

Nelson is currently considering a campaign to lead the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest body of organized workers in the United States. If elected, Nelson would be the federation’s first woman leader.

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