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Grad Student Union Formalizes First Local and Undergoes Restructuring After Settling on Contract

Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers went on strike last year beginning Dec 3.
Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers went on strike last year beginning Dec 3. By Kai R. McNamee
By Davit Antonyan, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers underwent a series of restructuring processes after winning their first contract earlier this summer, officially establishing themselves as HGSU-UAW Local 5118.

Part of the process of operating an organized local with a contract involves creating a formal structure for the union, including electing an executive board and chartering new bylaws. The graduate union currently stands at this step, according to newly minted HGSU-UAW president Brandon J. Mancilla.

“That's why there's restructuring. It's just that there's new roles, new tasks and duties, and responsibilities you have once you have a contract — in terms of handling grievances, in terms of electing new leadership, having bylaws to establish how you run your union democratically — and all that required a new structure,” Mancilla said.

One such duty is electing official stewards, who serve as departmental organizers to liaise between the union’s organizing group and workers in specific departments across the University. Though the union already had designated point persons working in each department, this process is intended to abide by its new charters and the expectations of setting up a local.

Mancilla added that once the union settled a contract in July, its immediate priority became establishing a grievance committee to handle separate workplace complaints between student workers and their University employers.

The committee assigns handlers to each grievance case the student workers wage; this change, too, formalizes a process that was already in place to serve members unofficially, union vice president Marisa J. Borreggine said.

“It's less of a restructuring than it is like a formalization of roles that already existed,” Borreggine said. “We had people who were helping students informally with workplace issues, and now we have the contract enforcement and education committee, which was called the interim Grievance Committee over the summer, that now more formally handles these grievances.”

The contract’s final agreement concerning discrimination and harassment grievance procedures was not everything the union had hoped for, Mancilla said — alluding to a key point of contention between the union and Harvard in bargaining sessions earlier this year.

Still, both Mancilla and Borreggine said the union viewed this contract as a successful first step toward protecting student workers’ rights after the current National Labor Relations Board ruled against student unionization in the case of Columbia University’s graduate student union in 2019.

Alleging that Harvard is using this first one-year contract as a “test year” to see if the union will persist, Borreggine said HGSU-UAW’s members are more energized than ever.

“There is a ton of energy around fighting for our next contract. We know no contract is ever perfect, and the needs and desires of our membership is going to change, especially in a year like this,” she said.

Union members will weigh in on bargaining goals for the next contract through a survey that will be sent to them later this fall. A newly elected bargaining committee will then take members’ requests into consideration and begin negotiations with the University anew in the spring 2021.

“I think it's important that we're still listening to people and what they want for our next contract,” Borreggine said.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

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LaborUniversityUnionizationHGSU