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Striking a Better Deal

By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

It’s strike season at Harvard. Last Wednesday, after six months of contentious negotiations, Harvard’s graduate student union announced its intention to engage in a three-day strike starting on Oct. 27 to eclipse freshman parents weekend.

The announcement comes as no surprise. The University seems unwilling to move towards a contract that would include graduate students’ fair requests — refusing to allow third-party arbitration for discrimination and sexual harassment complaints, which Harvard’s internal processes have repeatedly mishandled, and offering nominal pay increases that fail to account for Cambridge’s rising cost of living. In September, faced with a seemingly insurmountable impasse, Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a potential strike; weeks later, amidst lackluster progress, that strike seems at our door.

We have repeatedly defended strikes as a worthwhile, powerful tool that can help level the socioeconomic playing field and secure more humane conditions. That attitude led us to support both the 2016 Harvard University Dining Services’ strike, which secured enduring health care benefits, and the 2019 graduate student strike. Our labor perspective this go around remains mostly unchanged: We are glad graduate students are once again fighting for well-deserved improvements in their work ecosystem. If no agreement is reached by next week (which, with no known federal mediation sessions left, looks inevitable) HGSU-UAW members can count on our support.

Yet our ideological and practical commitment to labor activism doesn’t mean we find the reality of experiencing a strike as undergraduate students ideal. After all, effective organizing is often disruptive — and union leadership has made clear that they intend to be “as disruptive as possible” this parent’s weekend. In an ideal world, the University would secure additional mediation dates and come back with a proposed contract that puts something meaty, like third-party discrimination and harassment mediation, on the table — all before a disruption to campus research and academics. But, despite the University’s preemptive bemoaning of the strike, we’re not holding our breath.

A strike will almost certainly take place next week — with consequences and real choices for all of us to contend with. Graduate students will be forced to choose whether to participate or not, a call that will affect the size, and hence impact, of the strike as much as it will impact their own relationship to superiors and students. Professors, many of whom are heavily reliant on graduate assistance, will be forced to conduct research without research assistants and to teach without teaching fellows. And our own peers, undergraduate students, will have to grapple with an impossible choice: skip class to support the union, as union leadership has asked us to do, or cross the picket line and attend it.

For a three-day window, our commitment to learning and our desire to support those who make that learning possible will prove incompatible.

This conflict stems from the idiosyncrasies of striking at an educational institution. Harvard is not an ordinary employer. A picketed store loses money because customers, seeing a strike, might choose to shop elsewhere. Withheld labor obviously hurts a business’s bottom line. But Harvard’s currency is the production and passing down of knowledge. The cost of a strike, then, must be to research and instruction.

Some students may choose to walk out of class during the strike to get out of an exam. Some might stay, fearing a recommendation letter they’re hoping to get out of a professor might suffer if not. And others will surely be on the picket line, chanting hand-in-hand with the union. We remain mindful of the complexities of each individual’s decision, understanding that those who do cross the picket line by attending this or that lecture might have more nuanced motives than a fervent anti-labor outlook.

The decisions posed by the strike put all of us in a delicate situation. Undergraduates stand to suffer from both underpaid, overworked instructors and from the absence of their teaching fellows and course assistants. Self-interest aside, we hope undergraduates are rooting for a surprise sidestep of a strike not just because they wish to evade disruption to their own academics, but because they’re invested in graduate student workers' fight for a better contract.

Next week won’t be ideal — it’s not meant to be. As the strike inches closer, we ask both graduate students and the institution that has forced their hand to remember the toll it will take on undergraduates, just like our peers should try to understand HGSU-UAW’s grievances as they wrestle with how to respond.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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