For HLS Student Workers, #UNIONYES is the Right Choice

On April 18th and 19th, student workers from across Harvard will head to the polls and decide whether we should have a voice in our community, by voting for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers.

Harvard has fought the graduate student union every step of the way, from illegally excluding over 500 graduate student workers from voting in our first union election, to using our tuition money to hire expensive union-busting law firms, to filling our mailboxes with deceptive anti-union emails and mailers.

We’re concerned about the lengths to which Harvard has gone to actively mislead its students about the potential impact of unionization. As HLS students and graduate workers ourselves, we’re here to correct the record and demonstrate why #UnionYes is the right choice for HLS.

Dues & Bargaining

While many of us enjoy our jobs for reasons other than the money, money is important. Personally, like many of our peers, we are taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to finance our legal education. At the same time, the unfortunate reality is that many student workers at the law school are making far less than they should be, especially considering that our annual tuition is $63,800 and rising yearly.

For reference, the current HLS research assistant hourly rate is $11.50 per hour. In 2008, the research assistant hourly rate was–wait for it–$11.50 per hour. During this same period, tuition has increased by $24,475. We must do better.

With our union, we only pay dues, which are 1.44% of our wages, once we have a contract that we have voted on. In every union contract we know of, graduate workers are financially better off even after dues because of higher pay, lower fees, and better benefits. For example, the graduate student union at the University of Connecticut secured a 4% pay increase in its first year of bargaining, with a guaranteed 3% yearly increase going forward. Obviously, any similar pay increase would far outweigh the 1.44% union dues.

There is absolutely no risk to engaging in collective bargaining. That’s because we vote to ratify our contract, which includes our wages. Any changes would have to be voted on and approved by us as members of our union. If we don’t like it, we don’t vote for it. And if we vote it down, we go back to the status quo until we can negotiate a contract that we want to ratify. This is why we have not seen cuts at any of the more than 60 universities across the country already with student worker unions. .

Other graduate student unions have won significant improvements through their contracts in addition to wage increases. NYU graduate workers received a host of benefits including a childcare fund and dental insurance. At the University of Connecticut, student workers received dramatically improved healthcare benefits without increasing premiums. This plan worked so well that the university extended these benefits to non-unionized workers as well.

The NYU union also negotiated for more robust sexual harassment policies. As the #MeToo movement makes public the epidemic of sexual harassment, we believe that students deserve a seat at the table to formulate sexual harassment policies. A union gives us that seat. No longer would we be reliant on the university and its interests when combating sexual harassment.

We deserve these benefits too. With a union fighting for our interests, we can bring these, and other changes, to our campus.

Strikes

Some of the most frequent questions our fellow student workers have are about strikes. As student workers and future union voters, a strike is the last thing we want. But if Harvard bargains in good faith, there’s no need for a strike. Ninety-eight percent of labor contracts are reached without strikes. In order for our union to decide to go on strike, two-thirds of us would have to vote to authorize one. Even then, no one would be forced to go on strike, and union members cannot lose their jobs for striking.

Last year, we saw the power of striking in action. Harvard’s dining service workers went on strike after a long process in which the university repeatedly refused to bargain in good faith. As a result of the strike, the university finally agreed to raise dining service workers’ salaries by 3.5 percent and make healthcare more affordable. We don’t want to strike, but we want the ability to stand up for our rights. And this is what the power to strike provides.

How This Helps HLS

Here at HLS, three types of student workers are eligible for the union: teaching assistants, research assistants, and BSAs. (Sorry, pub bartenders!) We all have different responsibilities here at HLS, and our responsibilities are different from other graduate workers across the university. But being in the same union gives us more power to negotiate over matters that affect us all, from increased pay, to stronger sexual harassment policies, to better health insurance.

As law students, we believe in standing up for the powerless in the face of powerful institutions. We believe in giving the power to the people. While we understand that we have far more power than most of the people we represent, let’s practice what we preach, and stand up for graduate student workers across Harvard’s campus. Let’s make sure that all student workers have a say in matters that affect them every day. We know that with a union we will all be taken care of.

As Dean Manning recently stated in an email, “the results of this election will impact not only the remainder of your time at Harvard, but also the experiences of future students here and across the University.” We agree. That’s why we’re voting #UnionYes for HLS and we urge all of you to join us.

Marissa McGarry & Jake Meiseles

Marissa McGarry and Jake Meiseles are 2Ls and student workers at Harvard Law School.

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