The leaders of a graduate student unionization effort at Harvard announced yesterday that a majority of students in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have signed on in support of a student union, just months after Yale’s own Graduate Employees and Students Organization claimed it had reached two-thirds support among graduate students. But questions linger over whether increasing support for the two unions will result in any real change.
The announcement by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers merely underlines the central challenge faced by graduate student unionization movements across the country: winning over administrators who are reluctant to accept the legitimacy of a graduate student union even as these movements gain momentum nationwide. Current National Labor Relations Board regulations on student unions affirm universities’ hard-line stance that graduate students are students rather than employees, although two cases currently pending before the board could change that precedent.
The NLRB stipulates that 30 percent of employees must sign authorization cards before an election for or against unionization can be held. But although GESO and HGSU-UAW claim to have far surpassed this threshold of graduate student support, they are not permitted to hold an official union election, under the precedent set by a 2004 case in which the NLRB ruled that graduate students at Brown University did not meet the legal definition of employees. Still, despite this ruling, Yale has the option to voluntarily recognize a graduate student union.
GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said his organization will hold an up-or-down union vote if the University agrees to its terms. GESO is demanding that administrators and faculty refrain from lobbying against the union in a potential referendum.
“We are not waiting, we are calling on the administration to negotiate the terms of a no-intimidation vote immediately,” Greenberg said.
But according to University spokesman Tom Conroy, the University has no plans to honor GESO’s demands. Conroy said Yale has never considered its graduate students employees of the University and does not recognize GESO as the students’ representative.
“The NLRB has ruled that graduate students are not employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and neither GESO nor any other prospective union can now seek a binding secret-ballot election on a union through the NLRB,” Conroy said.
HGSU-UAW’s and GESO’s unionization hopes rest on two pending NLRB cases — one between The New School and its student employees and another involving Columbia University, in which the board will re-evaluate the Brown decision. Both cases, which are expected to be decided sometime this spring, could give the unofficial student unions license to hold binding elections whose results would have to be honored.
“We’re proud to be part of a growing movement at private universities across the country,” Greenberg said.
GESO, which was founded in 1990, has called for a union vote once before. In 2003, as GESO and Yale awaited the results of the Brown case, the organization held a nonbinding secret-ballot election — which also was not NLRB-sanctioned — to put pressure on the University and determine whether GESO had the support of a majority of graduate students. GESO did not have majority support and thus lost the election, and it has not held a vote since. It was not until 2007 that GESO announced it had secured the support of a majority of graduate students on campus, and it claimed to have reached two-thirds support in October 2015.
The Harvard union, on the other hand, came into existence only last spring, amid opposition from Harvard President Drew Faust. In September, the group announced that it had partnered with United Auto Workers, which also collaborates with student unions at Columbia and NYU. Only NYU’s union is officially recognized by the university.
Supporters of GESO and HGSU-UAW argue that graduate students’ teaching and grading responsibilities should qualify them as employees of the University.
“We help the University run,” GESO member Anna Jurkevics GRD ’16 said. “We’re treated partially as employees, but then we’re not acknowledged as employees.”
Jurkevics added that a graduate student union would enable student leaders to more effectively negotiate for child care subsidies for student parents, as well as other important resources.
Mayor Toni Harp and Gov. Dannel Malloy have publicly backed GESO.