On November 16th and 17th, student employees at Harvard Law School working as research assistants, BSAs, and teaching assistants will have the historic opportunity to vote in the first National Labor Relations Board union election at a private university in more than a decade. In August, the NLRB reversed a Bush-era decision that had declared Brown University student workers not to be employees and thus had stripped them of the right to organize. With the support of United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents more than 35,000 student employees in the United States including those at the University of California, student workers at Columbia University challenged that precedent, and restored our right to collectively bargain. The NLRB’s new decision declared that all student employees working in a teaching or research role at the university are employees and thus have a right to collectively bargain.
Just as at Columbia, graduate students at Harvard decided to work with the UAW and form the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU-UAW) in order to sit at the table with the administration to collectively negotiate over our working conditions. The discussions will cover compensation, on-time payment, health care, parental leave rights, protection against discrimination and harassment, and many other important matters. Having a union will give us the ability to be on a level playing field with Harvard’s administration — who determine our employment conditions without any employee input under the current system — and allow us to negotiate with the administration to improve those policies.
Forming a union like HGSU-UAW will help give us the power not only to win improved pay and benefits but also to take on issues that can affect everyone at the university, such as the overwork, racism, and sexual harassment that far too often become part of employment relationships. These are issues any student worker could face, whether they work in a chemistry lab or as a research assistant here at HLS. Though student employees in different Harvard schools do varying types of work on a day-to-day basis, our similarities outweigh our differences. The NLRB defined our community of interest as teaching and research employees across the university. No matter what specific school or position, all members of HGSU-UAW are engaged in the advancement of knowledge, either through the pursuit of original research for faculty, the teaching of other students, or both. We believe that a union will improve working conditions in ways large and small for student employees across the Harvard community and that these improvements will in turn improve the quality of teaching and research at Harvard.
Our union will also protect the things we love most and are unique to the Law School. Nothing in the contract we would negotiate would cap the hours a student freely chooses to work, nor would it prevent faculty from hiring research assistants on a short-term or flexible basis. By protecting our current work conditions through a union contract, we can prevent the administration from changing them without negotiating with us first and maintain the freedom and flexibility that many of us value.
The first step toward a fair contract is the election that is taking place on November 16 and 17. In Cambridge, voting will take place at the Phillips Brooks House in the northwest corner of Harvard Yard from 10 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. and 4:30 P.M. to 8 P.M. each day. If a majority of those who vote choose to be represented by the union, the Harvard administration will be required to negotiate a contract in good faith. Once the election is completed, we will elect a bargaining committee with members from across the university. The committee will then circulate bargaining surveys and hold town halls to determine what the most pressing issues are for our membership, then begin the work of negotiating our union contract. Once a tentative agreement is reached, the membership will vote to accept or reject the contract. If the contract is rejected, a new bargaining committee will be elected and will be sent back to negotiate a better deal. Only once a contract is ratified will we begin to pay union dues of 1.44% of our total pay. Locally, these dues pay for negotiation experts and researchers, legal representation, union events and general logistics. About 40% of the dues go to the international UAW to fund the union’s general operation as well as to support unionization efforts as they have supported us in our union drive. Dues do not, however, go toward partisan campaign contributions; those are funded by voluntary member donations.
On November 16 and 17, voting Yes for the union will confirm what has been said for the last year: a majority of student employees want to have a democratic voice in our working conditions to help win a healthy Harvard.
Henry Druschel and Sarah Bacot are 2Ls. Jonathon Booth is a 1L.