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Grad Student Union Alleges Harvard Attempting to ‘Defund’ the Union by ‘Starving Out’ Resources

Harvard's graduate student union ratified a one-year contract this summer.
Harvard's graduate student union ratified a one-year contract this summer. By Sara Komatsu
By Davit Antonyan, Crimson Staff Writer

As it begins its first semester as a fully operational local, Harvard’s graduate student union is alleging that the University is attempting to defund the union and impede its organizing by not deducting union dues for student workers, union president Brandon J. Mancilla said.

As with most unions, students who join Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers are asked to pay union dues. These payments support the union’s fiscal continuity and cover any costs associated with its major organizing activities, such as bargaining and settling grievances.

HGSU-UAW members have their union fees automatically deducted from their paychecks and transferred to the union at a rate of 1.44 percent of gross income, per the final contract the union and Harvard reached earlier this year. When students sign membership cards to join the union, Harvard is supposed to automatically enroll them into a dues deduction system in its payroll.

But Mancilla said the University did not deduct dues from members’ paychecks until September 18, nearly three months after the contract’s July 1 ratification, and alleged this was a deliberate attempt by Harvard to challenge the union.

“This is a test year for [the University] to see how much they can handle us existing and being formalized,” Mancilla said. “From July 1 to September 18, if you signed a membership card, authorizing the automatic deduction of dues, Harvard had not done so.”

Beyond just withholding dues, Mancilla alleged that the administration did not communicate appropriate information to the unions about which members had voluntarily agreed to deduct dues from their paychecks.

“We see that as an attempt on their part to defund us — to not allow us to have the resources to be able to organize, to be able to build our campaign for a second contract, to not be able to reach our membership and other workers who are not yet members effectively, and, yes, starve out our resources during this test year,” Mancilla said.

HGSU-UAW has filed a formal grievance over the complaints, Mancilla said, and is currently working towards a resolution with the administration.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the allegations.

“The University will not comment on the status or substance of a pending grievance filed by HGSU-UAW or other union,” he wrote in an email.

The graduate student union operates under an “open shop” clause, which does not require student workers to join the union or pay dues just because they are eligible for inclusion in its bargaining unit. This contract provision is unique to HGSU-UAW and does not apply to Harvard’s other unions.

This “right-to-work” open shop provision drew strong criticism from organizers when Harvard initially proposed it in February 2019, with members saying it would prevent the union from gaining enough financial resources to organize and continue its activities.

Mancilla said resolving that standing disagreement will form an essential part of negotiations when the two sides meet at the bargaining table again next spring.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at

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