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When Harvard’s graduate student union voted to ratify its new contract in 2021, it won a key concession in the creation of a $100,000 fund to cover the legal expenses of graduate students “relating to their working conditions at the University.”
Two years later, the union and Harvard’s Office for Labor and Employee Relations remain at odds over how to interpret Article 24 of the contract and administer the fund, with the union accusing the school of “stonewalling” attempts to agree on a set of rules.
Last month, the union turned to crowdfunding to cover $17,000 in legal fees for a student worker who the union said was going through the University Title IX process. Union leaders at Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers charged Harvard with stalling the legal defense fund approval process.
HGSU-UAW leaders say that the union and the University have diverging interpretations of what constitutes “working conditions” in Article 24 for graduate students, who serve the sometimes-murky dual role of student and employee.
“The benefits of the contracts pertain to us as employees. The University claims that the benefits and protections in the contract don't apply to us in our capacity as students,” HGSU-UAW Trustee Max G. Ehrenfreund said in an interview. “Although that distinction between student and employees exists in federal labor law and federal labor regulation, it’s extremely difficult to actually define it in practice.”
The union proposed a set of interim rules in April 2023 that required a worker seeking funds to be enrolled at Harvard and to be actively employed in a teaching or graduate research position. That document, which the union later said was too vague, was publicly accessible on the union’s website as of Aug. 18. It has since been removed.
HGSU-UAW sent an updated proposal to OLER on June 21, Ehrenfreund said, which aimed to address some of the issues in the original proposal and sought to create more uniform payment disbursement rules consistent with other benefit funds.
Talks between the union and OLER are currently at an impasse. They have not met since Aug. 23, Ehrenfreund said.
Sal Suri, an HGSU-UAW official, said certain “sticking points” in the dispute have been “preventing us from making a lot of headway and resolving our differences,” leaving student workers without a standard process for applying for and receiving funds.
“Because the rules are not being finalized in a timely way, there is not really a clear mechanism for accessing the legal fund for student workers,” Suri said.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on criticism of OLER and the legal fund negotiations.
The dispute escalated last month when HGSU-UAW officials took to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, to promote a GoFundMe campaign for an unnamed graduate student worker seeking $17,000 in legal fees for what they said was an open Title IX investigation into “ongoing, years-long sexual harassment.”
Union officials said the student first requested funds from the University on May 17, but it took three months of back and forth before the University agreed to disburse the funds Aug. 17, after the union delivered documentation requested by OLER, including a retainer agreement for the student’s lawyer.
According to Newton, the University sent $17,000 to the union “within days of receiving the invoice.” The funds were transferred “so the union could reimburse the student worker for the documented legal expenses incurred,” Newton wrote in an email.
But immediately after the University transferred the money to the union, the union reversed the transaction, returning $17,000 to the University.
Ehrenfreund declined to comment on the specific reasons for the return, but said in general, the language of the HGSU-UAW contract requires the money to be transferred directly to student workers, not through the union.
“Unfortunately, after some back and forth, the University is unwilling to distribute funds to the student worker in a method that complies with our contract,” Denish Jaswal, a union official who organized the fundraiser, wrote in an updated note on the GoFundMe page.
Article 24 requires the University to “make a fund available to the Union to reimburse eligible bargaining unit members for legal expenses.” Newton said the University’s decision to transfer funds to the union, and not the individual student, was “fully compliant with the clear and unambiguous language of Article 24.”
While union organizers had initially suspended their GoFundMe page in response to the University’s agreement to transfer the requested funds, they reopened the fundraiser after returning the funds to the University. They have raised almost $9,000 toward the $17,000 goal.
Ehrenfreund said the student’s legal needs remain urgent, but that their lawyer has agreed to provide legal services in the interim until the money is raised or the student receives the money directly.
“The lawyer in this case understands that HGSU is making every possible effort to resolve this case as soon as possible,” Ehrenfreund said.
“The lawyer is not working pro bono,” he added.
The University suggested using a third-party mediator to resolve the dispute over fund rules, which HGSU-UAW organizers said they were considering. Ehrenfreund said the union also plans to file an official grievance over the legal fund rules later this week.
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