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Psychology Graduate Students Dispute Ineligibility for Union Benefits

Harvard's Labor and Employee Relations office.
Harvard's Labor and Employee Relations office. By Angela Dela Cruz
By Sophia C. Scott and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard's graduate student union is at odds with the University over whether graduate students who are not employed as instructors or research assistants — but still conduct research as part of their graduate programs — are eligible for union benefits.

The Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers’ contract with the University guarantees student workers at the school access to benefit funds that cover health expenses, child care, international student services, and more.

The union filed a grievance against the University on behalf of students in the Psychology Department last April, claiming Harvard violated its contract by blocking students who are not hired as instructors, teaching fellows, or research assistants from applying for benefit funds. The complaint said Psychology students should qualify for student worker benefits because they conduct research as part of their graduate programs.

But as the union and University continue to navigate the grievance process, the Psychology Department reaffirmed the ineligibility of some of its students from union coverage.

Steven W. Kasparek, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department, said he attempted to apply for the HGSU medical and dental reimbursement funds in early 2022. But he discovered he was not considered a student worker by the University, a distinction he believes to be a result of the external funding he receives from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

“So I reached out to some union folks, and they said that that was incorrect and that our contract very clearly states that any student who does research under the supervision of faculty…regardless of funding source, is covered by the contract,” Kasparek said.

The union initially helped Kasparek draft a personal grievance.

“Throughout that process, we realized that there were a lot of students in the Psychology Department who were in similar situations,” Kasparek said. “So we decided to drop the personal grievance and instead file a group grievance for all of Psychology.”

On Sept. 22, Psychology Department chair Matthew K. Nock sent a statement to graduate students in the department “to clarify for our students our understanding of the current HGSU-UAW contract.”

In the statement, Nock differentiated graduate student teaching fellows and research assistants from graduate students “who are admitted to the Department as students only.”

According to Nock, the students who assist faculty with instruction or research are recognized as members of the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit because they are “hired to provide valuable services to the University.” As part of the union, they qualify to apply for the union’s employee benefit pools.

But for students like Kasparek who conduct independent research and do not teach, Nock wrote, “benefits are determined exclusively by their student status with the University.”

“These students are not student workers covered by the terms of the HGSU-UAW contract,” he wrote.

HGSU released a petition on Sept. 15, which has since garnered more than 70 signatures from University affiliates, demanding “the Harvard administration immediately grant Psychology graduate students their rightful in-unit designation.”

The petition claims the union’s contract designates any student who “performs research” while “under the supervision of faculty” as a research assistant — a position protected under the contract.

“This clearly describes ALL Psych PhD work,” an HGSU tweet reads.

The ineligibility of some graduate students, like those in the Psychology department, from union benefits is “inherently a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue,” the union wrote in a Sept. 15 tweet. It added that “students from lower-resource backgrounds, who often also hold other minoritized identities” are disproportionately impacted by the policy.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that the matter is “working its way through the contractually negotiated grievance and arbitration process, therefore we have no comment.”

—Sophia Scott can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.

—Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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