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‘Make It A Union Town’: Harvard Labor Organizers Discuss Push to Unionize at HLS Event

Four Harvard union leaders discussed the growing push to unionize at Harvard during an event hosted by the Harvard Law School's Labor and Employment Action Project.
Four Harvard union leaders discussed the growing push to unionize at Harvard during an event hosted by the Harvard Law School's Labor and Employment Action Project. By Julian J. Giordano
By Rachel M. Fields and Caitlyn C. Kukulowicz, Crimson Staff Writers

A panel of four Harvard union leaders discussed the motivations, challenges, and successes of the growing push to unionize Harvard during an event hosted by the Labor and Employment Action Project at Harvard Law School.

Moderated by A. Vail Kohnert-Yount, an HLS graduate and the Assistant Director for Region 9A of the United Auto Workers, the event featured panelists J. Gregory Given; an expository writing preceptor and member of Harvard Academic Workers-United Auto Workers; Emma I. Scott, a law lecturer and member of the HAW-UAW HLS Clinical Unit; Travis Cabbell, an Adams resident tutor and member of Harvard Union of Residential Advisors; and Danielle Boudrow, a recording secretary and organizer with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

The event was hosted by the Labor and Employment Action Project at HLS, a student group focused on worker advocacy and education around labor and employment issues.

Kohnert-Yount introduced the event as part of “a greater resurgence of labor and union rights” on campus leading up to the HAW-UAW union recognition elections on April 3-4.

Last month, HAW-UAW and Harvard reached an agreement allowing the group to hold a unionization election in early April, bypassing a lengthy union recognition hearing process with the National Labor Relations Board. If the vote to unionize succeeds, HAW-UAW will begin preparing to bargain with the University.

Given said the renewed push to unionize Harvard has been a “long time coming.”

In response to all of the frustrations expressed, Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in a statement that “Harvard is committed to the democratic process, respects the individuals’ right to choose whether or not to be represented by a union, and strongly believes that voters should make the choice that is right for them.”

Scott said the HAW-UAW HLS Clinical Unit is primarily concerned about the “lack of transparency around salary, working conditions, job security, and career advancement within clinical programs at HLS.”

Clinicians are having to “scrape together pennies in order to make ends meet and have this opportunity here at Harvard,” Scott said. “We know that our instructors are actually paid at the 25th percentile compared to others across the country.”

Boudrow voiced a similar sentiment, claiming that at Harvard, it can feel as if “you are being paid in prestige rather than salary.”

Cabbell, an Adams Specialty Tutor for First-Generation, Low-Income Students & Race Relations, said residential advisers like himself receive “zero dollars outside housing and food” for the work they put into advising.

Despite gripes with the job’s compensation structure, though, Cabbell stressed that helping students is still the priority.

“That’s why we picked this job,” he said.

Cabbell said that many residential advisers on campus are afraid to voice their concerns about compensation, as their employers are also their landlords.

“You are scared that if you do get let go, ‘What do I do now?’” Cabell said.

In particular, he pointed to the fact that some proctors live in residence with their children.

“That could be a family you’re displacing,” he said.

Some of the panelists also pointed to the time cap as another driving factor behind the new unionization efforts. Non-tenure-track faculty — including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences College Fellows, lecturers, and preceptors — sign contracts for two, three, or eight years and must leave their post after that time.

“Every year, people are timing out,” Given said. “No matter how good of an instructor they are, no matter how much their course has been featured in the Harvard Gazette, no matter what students write on the Q report.”

During the panel, speakers also referenced Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, who was relieved of his proctor position in the Fall semester for his involvement in a confrontation with a student during a pro-Palestine protest.

Cabbell criticized the University’s removal of Tettey-Tamaklo, saying that he was “clearly acting on his right to free speech.”

Cabbell drew on Tettey-Tamaklo’s case to illustrate his broader point about the lack of job security for workers on campus.

“It was very darn clear what job protections we had at that time,” Cabbell said, adding that it is unclear where the line of proctor and tutor rights stands and “how far out it can be moved.”

Kohnert-Yount said the efforts to unionize come in response to the corporate attitude with which Harvard treats its non-tenure-track faculty and workers.

“Cambridge is very much a company town” as a result of Harvard, she said. “The way to fight back against a company town is to make it a union town.”

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