Students Gear Up For Union Vote, Though Not All Are Supportive

On November 16 and 17, another election will take place. This time, Harvard graduate students will vote on whether they will form a union for collective bargaining.

The vote applies only to those students who are receiving a wage from Harvard, such as research and teaching assistants. Law School students will be represented alongside other graduate students, such as Ph.D. candidates.

If the vote passes, the union will represent student workers, and the school will be required to negotiate with the union to reach an agreement on the working conditions of student workers. Once the union and Harvard reach a preliminary agreement, there will be another vote among union members to ratify that agreement .

I attended a town hall meeting on November 2 in which administrators answered questions from students, and while a number of goals have been addressed, nothing is certain.

The impact on wages is uncertain. While the hope is that unionization will increase wages, Harvard’s provost has written that there may be a net decrease in pay. Of course, the benefits and drawbacks of unionization are more than financial.

Proposals for other components of the agreement vary. Among ideas suggested at the town hall, one proposal would attempt to increase protection from sexual harassment, and another would help students seek recourse for hours worked that hadn’t been paid.

One major point of contention was work stoppages, or strikes. However, the issue of strikes may not be as significant as expected.

“Students will never be forced to go on strike,” said 1L Jonathan Booth, who is one of the organizers of the unionization effort.

Other measures exist to reduce the practical likelihood of striking. To hold a strike, two-thirds of voting members would have to vote in favor of a strike. Additionally, it is possible the agreement will incorporate a no-strike clause, though that remains to be seen.

However, not all students are supportive of the union.

“Whereas a union may make marginal improvements or slightly worsen students’ experiences at Harvard, it looks certain that it will generate a lot of animosity, conflicts, and disruption within the University community,” said physics graduate student Jae Hyeon Lee in an email. “This is an almost inevitable consequence of having a union as it makes the relationship between students and the administration adversarial by definition (employee vs. employer).”

Lee is not alone. There is an anti-union Facebook page, with 165 likes as of Wednesday night.

“In terms of the ‘general sentiment’, it seems true that a lot of students support unionization,” Lee said. “But also, a lot don’t. Students who are against or feel ambivalent towards unionization are less vocal as they are made to feel like they are bad people if they don’t support the unionization.”

Whether the more ambivalent group will make a difference, however, remains to be seen: after all, they may just choose not to vote.

While it is possible that a student of the law school would be on the bargaining committee, it’s also possible that considerations unique to the law school may be drowned out.  Because paid law students are relatively few in number, law students would make up a relatively small share of the bargaining unit. While over 3500 graduate students would be covered by the union, law students would make up around 300 of that number. And if the final agreement is unfavorable to law student workers, law student workers may be stuck with a union and an agreement that isn’t beneficial to them if enough other students workers vote for the agreement. Whatever the result, law students will feel the consequences of the vote.

Andrew Langen is a Record staff writer. He is a 1L.

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