Teaching and research assistants at Harvard University flocked to voting booths this week to cast their ballots in the first graduate student union election since the federal government opened a pathway to unionization at private universities in August.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. Thursday after two days of voting at Harvard, but the results of the election — which took place on Wednesday and Thursday — will not be announced until later today at the earliest. A union victory would give the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers the right to bargain with Harvard on behalf of TAs and RAs in the graduate and professional schools, as well as certain eligible undergraduates.
HGSU-UAW spokesman Jack Nicoludis did not respond to numerous requests for comment. But in a statement to the News, Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 called the Harvard election “an incredibly exciting moment.”
“We’re so proud to be part of a national movement of grad employees coming together to take on the issues that affect us every day, and we’re looking forward to our own vote soon,” Greenberg said.
And with Yale union supporters’ election hopes still mired in labor court disputes in Hartford, the Harvard election has also emerged as a point of contrast between two graduate student unions with significantly different strategies.
In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities are employees and have the right to unionize, overturning a decade-old precedent. Since then, Yale and Harvard have become test cases for two radically different approaches to the new legal landscape.
Last month, Harvard’s administration and HGSU-UAW, which was established in spring 2015, agreed to hold union elections for the graduate school, the professional schools and eligible undergraduates.
By contrast, Local 33 — HGSU-AUW’s Yale counterpart — filed petitions for 10 departmental elections less than a week after the NLRB decision, without approaching Yale officials to negotiate an election agreement, according to University spokesman Tom Conroy.
“It is noteworthy that, unlike Local 33, the prospective graduate student union at Harvard is pursuing an open, inclusive approach,” Conroy said.
After the dates of the Harvard election were announced, Nicoludis told The Harvard Crimson that the HGSU-UAW waited longer than Yale to call elections in order to “make sure that we had the chance to talk to all these other students that were covered by the Columbia decision and new students to Harvard.”
Yale contested Local 33’s departmental election strategy — a novel approach that no graduate student union in a private or public university has ever attempted — in labor court in Hartford. Both sides in the case are awaiting the verdict of NLRB Regional Director John Walsh, who will determine whether Local 33’s departmental elections can proceed. It remains unclear how long Walsh will take to deliver that decision.
In an interview with the News earlier this semester, Yale Law School professor Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93 rebutted the University’s legal argument against departmental elections, saying that Local 33’s approach clearly meets the NLRB’s threshold for determining whether a bargaining unit shares a “community of interest” justifying an election.
Amid the legal uncertainty, Local 33’s departmental election strategy has faced widespread criticism from students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
In October, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to reject the department-by-department approach, breaking years of silence on the unionization issue. And GASO — an anti-Local 33 group with roots in the long-running graduate student unionization debate at Yale — has made the strategy one of the central planks of its opposition to the union.
Alex Georgescu GRD ’17, a co-founder of the new GASO website, said the HGSU-UAW’s election strategy is more democratic than Local 33’s departmental approach.
“It looks like they didn’t alienate so many departments that they have to resort to these weird tricks where they go to only some departments,” Georgescu said. “It seems much more democratic to me. What they’re doing makes sense, that’s an actual vote. [At Harvard] they don’t have such a long history of alienating people with their various tactics.”
Since the 1990s, the graduate student union movement at Yale has faced criticism for tactics some have described as overly aggressive. In 2003, the graduate student union, which at the time was known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, lost an unofficial election partly because of student complaints about its tactics.
Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18 — a former president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate who now runs GASO alongside Georgescu — said that despite her concerns about the union’s aggressive recruitment, she would be “more amenable” to voting to form a union if Local 33 pursued the same University-wide strategy as HGSU-UAW.
“One of our biggest issues is that with the [departmental] approach, it kind of cherry picks select departments that it knows it will win, while leaving out other departments that will be affected by the decision without having input on the process,” she said.
Mo said that students who teach in departments chosen by Local 33 but who officially belong to departments not on the union’s list — such as African American Studies students who teach in the History Department — are particularly disserved by the union’s election strategy.
Greenberg did not directly address questions about Local 33’s departmental strategy. But he did point out that “the Harvard administration appears to disagree with the Yale administration.” While Yale contends that Local 33’s proposed bargaining units do not represent enough graduate students, Harvard has argued that HGSU-UAW hopes to represent an overly broad and diverse set of students.
In previous interviews, Greenberg has said that Local 33’s approach reflects the academic structure of the University and protects against “legal gamesmanship.”
“Our University is organized into departments, and graduate teachers are too,” he told the News in September.
At Harvard, student opposition to the union has not centered on election strategies or recruitment tactics. Instead, critics of HGSU-UAW have raised concerns primarily about student-teacher relationships and the cost of membership dues, according to The Crimson.
The graduate student union at Columbia University will hold its own elections on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8.