For Law Students, a De Minimis Pay Raise

On January 1 of this year, student workers at Harvard Law School got our first raise in over a decade, from $11.50 to $12.00 an hour.  Our meager fifty cent raise wasn’t the result of Harvard’s sudden generosity—rather, it’s because the Massachusetts Legislature increased the state’s minimum wage.

It had been so long—at least eleven years!—since Harvard Law raised pay for research assistants and teaching fellows that the state minimum wage has now surpassed what we were making. In real terms, that means our wages have declined due to inflation. In the same amount of time, tuition has skyrocketed 57%, from $40,751 in 2008 to $63,800 in 2019. Yet none of that money is being returned to the students whose work keeps the school running, and our pay is far from a living wage.

Our wages are especially egregious given the debt load Harvard asks us to take on. While we are asked to bear hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for our education, the wealthiest educational institution in the world compensates us at the bare minimum allowed by law for the work we do. For students who are trying to minimize our expenses and debt by working during law school, this paltry wage barely makes a dent.

Our next raise will either come in 2020 when the next state minimum wage increase is scheduled—or when the university reaches a contract agreement with our union, the Harvard Graduate Student Union. HGSU is advocating for higher wages for student workers campus-wide.  Law students pay the most in tuition of any Harvard students after business students, yet we earn the least of any student workers on campus, including undergraduates. We are among those with the most to gain from our union contract.

But when will we win our contract? After student workers voted yes for HGSU-UAW last April, we were encouraged when Harvard announced it would respect our vote and bargain, as it is required to do by law. But more than six months later, the administration is dragging its feet, refusing to budge on even basic nondiscrimination protections. By slow-walking negotiations, Harvard is jeopardizing our ability to reach agreement on a fair contract in a timely manner—like before we graduate.

Our union isn’t just bargaining for higher wages. The union’s priorities, which were approved through a vote by student workers, include a wide range of issues that affect law students, including health care, child care, harassment, discrimination, international student status, and more. Every day that goes by without an agreement is another day where student workers lack an independent grievance process for sexual harassment or discrimination, get paid late, or are denied access to affordable dental insurance or mental health care.

Support our union by signing our petition for more bargaining time. You can also get involved by joining the organizing team or another committee. And if you have a story to tell, you can provide testimony in a bargaining session to make sure your concerns are heard. Because we can’t wait another decade for better health care, more affordable child care, protections against harassment—or a raise.

Vail Kohnert-Yount, Jake Meiseles, Jared Odessky, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, & Sejal Singh

Vail Kohnert-Yount, Jared Odessky, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, and Sejal Singh are 2Ls, and Jake Meiseles is a 3L.

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