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Why You Should Support The Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union

Fight the Power!

Undergraduate workers rallied for a union at John Harvard in April after the University denied voluntary recognition.
Undergraduate workers rallied for a union at John Harvard in April after the University denied voluntary recognition. By Courtesy of Benjamin B. Roberts
By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “Fight the Power!” runs bi-weekly on Mondays

At least 453,000 workers have participated in 312 strikes in the U.S. this year. Hundreds of thousands of workers in industries ranging from Hollywood to health care are standing up across this country. American organized labor is fighting organized greed.

As more and more workers straighten their backs up, a new union is on the horizon at Harvard University: the Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union. With the election to certify the union taking place soon, all of our community should know what a union victory would mean for Harvard labor moving forward.

The Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union, or HUWU, is a movement to unionize non-academic student workplaces at Harvard. The campaign — initiated by myself and fellow organizers in the Student Labor Action Movement — began by inviting student workers to weekly meetings to discuss their workplaces last spring.

The short history of HUWU is built on quick and intentional action from its organizers. A few weeks into asking workers to sign union cards — a document indicating a desire to authorize a union — in March, the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers voted to affiliate with HUWU under Local 5118 of the United Auto Workers if the undergraduate union wins certification. And just two months into the campaign going public, we delivered a request to the University’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations to voluntarily recognize the union that unsurprisingly was rejected.

Since the University failed to recognize the will of the workers, HUWU filed with the National Labor Relations Board on May 3, triggering an election on October 24 and 25 where workers will decide whether or not to certify the union.

The future of all student labor on campus is at stake as we approach this election. As of now, HUWU would represent as many as 500 student workers at Harvard libraries, cafes, and equity, diversity, and inclusion offices across the University.

However, the hope and the plan is to expand these organizing efforts. If undergraduate students in other sectors want to organize their workplace, HUWU is encouraging these workers to fill out a new workplace organizing form. Student workers who are currently non-eligible for HUWU are not going to be left behind — they’re next in line.

The ultimate goal is to keep building collective strength until all workers, regardless of their position, unite to ensure those who do the labor get what they are owed. It is necessary for undergrad workers here to exercise their right to control over the labor that they do.

Unions are dope democratic engines of worker power. As organizers showed at the first HUWU rally back in April, the union is a body where workers can center the issues that directly affect them, including proper compensation and better scheduling and hiring practices. The union serves as a means for people to collectively focus on interests that extend beyond the workplace, from standing up for immigrant rights and protections to building multiracial coalitions.

HUWU will be an important member of a band of organized labor on Harvard’s Campus. It will join 32BJ Service Employees International Union custodians and security guards, Unite Here! Local 26 dining hall workers, HGSU-UAW workers, and others. These unions can work together, especially when their contracts expire at similar times, to bargain with the University as one. Teaching Fellows could go on strike alongside the students they teach, or dining hall workers could walk out with undergraduate cafe workers.

This multi-union coordination will only get stronger as more workers, like Harvard’s non-tenure-track faculty, organize their workplaces.

The campaign for an undergraduate workers’ union represents a larger phenomenon happening in the American labor movement. Workers around the country are seeing corporations make record profits as wages are falling due to inflation. The fear of massive layoffs due to outsourcing and artificial intelligence, as well as inadequate health care and time off in a Covid-19 world, make the right to organize existential for workers.

This is the climate of the class struggle in which the movement for an undergraduate workers’ union is being built, and we’re paying attention to how labor is responding to it. HUWU has eyes on UAW workers at the big three automakers’ companies who are currently on strike for equal pay, equal work, and cost of living adjustments. We saw the 75,000 workers across the health care system walk off the job in early October in pursuit of a $25 an hour minimum wage.

We cannot isolate HUWU from Harvard or the labor movement within higher education. It is part of a national and global working-class struggle.

Many of us in the labor movement today understand that all wealth generated belongs to those who create it. We are at a critical moment to decide whether the corporations can continue to own the people, or the people can take control over their workplace. Which side are you on?

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “Fight the Power!” runs bi-weekly on Mondays

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