Harvard teaching and research assistants voted to join the United Automobile Workers labor union last week, just two months after Yale’s graduate student union, Local 33, withdrew its National Labor Review Board petitions to represent students in eight departments of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The results of the National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election, held at Harvard last Wednesday and Thursday, revealed that 56 percent of voters — or 1,931 out of a pool of 3,454 voters — favored unionization, with a high voter turnout of around 70 percent of teaching and research assistants. The universitywide vote, as long as it is not contested, will establish a collective bargaining unit of nearly 5,000 eligible students, including several hundred undergraduates in teaching positions.
Representatives from Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers and the Harvard administration did not respond to requests for comment from the News. But members of the union told the Boston Globe that Harvard is committed to negotiating the terms of a contract, while the university said it has not yet decided whether to come to the table. The requests of graduate students who support unionization at Harvard mirror those of graduate students campaigning for unionization at Yale — stability in wages, more comprehensive health care coverage and a better process for resolving grievances, especially those related to sexual misconduct.
This is the second time Harvard teaching and research assistants have held a unionization election. But the results of the first election in 2016 — in which the union was defeated — were disregarded following disputes over the voter list and months of litigation.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled at the HGSU victory at Harvard. In this election and many others across the country in the last 18 months, thousands of graduate workers at private universities have voted for union representation,” said Lena Eckert-Erdheim GRD ’20, co-president of Local 33. “Given this growing consensus, we hope and expect that the Harvard administration will set an industrywide standard and begin contract negotiations immediately.”
Stanford professor of law, emeritus and former chairman of the NLRB William Gould called Harvard students’ vote to unionize “a tremendous victory … for the idea of unionization amongst graduate students.”
Despite the similarities in the two unions’ demands, the recent unionization election processes at Yale and Harvard were vastly different. While HGSU-UAW followed the precedent of other schools by holding a universitywide vote, Local 33 broke with convention by using a controversial micro-unit strategy in its February 2017 elections. The strategy allowed the group to hand pick nine Graduate School departments in which to hold unionization votes. The students in the eight departments that voted in favor of unionization represented just 10 percent of the graduate student population.
Andrew Cohen GRD ’17 — one of more than 80 former Local 33 members who supported a new group, the Union We Want, which formed in response to dissatisfaction with and distrust of Local 33’s leadership — told the News that the universitywide nature of Harvard’s election and the 70 percent voter turnout will give Harvard’s union more legitimacy than Local 33.
“The micro-bargaining strategy was an especially bad look at Yale because … it wound up showing how much the collective student body didn’t want to unionize in the way Local 33 proposed,” Cohen said. “It cost Local 33 a lot of their legitimacy. Political legitimacy in civil society is drawn from the claim that you represent an abstracted group, right? When that claim comes under question, you lose your bargaining power.”
Over the past two months, representatives from Local 33 have not responded to repeated questions about Local 33’s future. Although Eckert-Erdheim replied to request for comment from the News on Sunday, she did not answer questions about Local 33’s plans moving forward or whether Yale’s graduate students will follow Harvard’s example and seek to hold a university-wide unionization election.
With its decision to join UAW, Harvard joins Yale and a growing list of private universities across the country whose graduate students have voted to unionize over the past 18 months, following a 2016 NLRB decision to reinstate the rights of private university graduate students to unionize. The graduate students at Columbia University — the subject of the NLRB case that resulted in the 2016 decision — voted to form a union in December 2016 in a universitywide vote, and Yale followed suit soon after in February 2017.
Although several graduate student unions have campaigned fiercely for recognition from their universities — in some cases, employing controversial tactics, such as the hunger strike Local 33 held to try to pressure Yale to the bargaining table — New York University remains the only private university that has established a collective bargaining agreement with its graduate student union.
Citing the “undemocratic” and “inappropriate” nature of the micro-unit election strategy, the Yale administration has consistently refused to bargain with Local 33. After the elections, Yale asked the NLRB to review the Local 33-Unite Here union’s organizing tactics as well as reconsider its policy ruling in 2016 that graduate student instructors at private universities are employees and therefore eligible to organize.
Despite Harvard’s success, the long-term outlook for graduate student unions nationwide is bleak. President Donald Trump has three appointments to the NLRB since he assumed the presidency in 2017, giving the Republicans a 32-majority on the board. That means it’s likely the NLRB will soon overturn the 2016 decision allowing graduate students at private universities to unionize.
“In the near future, unless universities feel that they have a difficult public relations problem with students and employees, they probably will not exceed to the unions’ demands for private elections outside of the NLRB,” Gould said. “So with the graduate students, the NLRB is the only game in town, and if the NLRB won’t take jurisdiction, you’re going to have difficulty.”
In part because of concerns that any pending or contested NLRB cases could result in the overturning of graduate students’ legal right to unionize, Local 33, as well as graduate student unions at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Boston College, have ceased efforts to unionize through the NLRB. After Local 33 withdrew its NLRB petitions in February, Local 33 co-presidents Robin Dawson GRD ’19 and Erkert-Erdheim sent an email to the Local 33 community stating that its decision to withdraw its petitions was intended to “protect both [the union’s] rights and the rights of thousands of other workers across the country.”
Still, Harvard’s graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants may not face the same type of threat that Local 33 and other graduate student unions do. Unlike the cases at Yale and other universities, the UAW’s petition to represent Harvard’s graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants is not currently pending before the NLRB. According to an agreement between Harvard and the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers signed in 2016, Harvard has not asked the NLRB to reconsider its 2016 policy ruling in favor of graduate student unionization in private universities.
Gould said that if the agreement states that the vote will be final and that Harvard will not contest it, then the case will not “present a vehicle of reexamination” of the policy decision of the Columbia case.
Moving forward, Cohen emphasized that graduate student unions must understand the difference “between the value of democratically-supported unions in the abstract and the details of the actual union we want.”
“I always had issues with Local 33 because they loved to preach about the abstract values of a union, but just seemed so horrifically unqualified to think through the details of how they were going to carry this all out,” Cohen said. “If we can start conversations by assuming everyone generally supports improving the quality of life for others and turn our attention to how we do it, we’ll have much more productive conversations.”
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org