Robbie Short

As the fate of Local 33, Yale’s graduate student union, hangs in the balance, the newly formed Harvard graduate students union is preparing to begin negotiations with Harvard this fall following the university’s agreement to enter into talks last May.

Meanwhile, in Providence, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees — Brown’s graduate student union — this summer reached an election agreement with the university that outlines the responsibilities of administrators and the union to hold an election that would require Brown to enter into negotiations with Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees if the union wins.

“We look forward to bargaining with Harvard this fall, covering issues that are important to student workers and making the university a more inclusive place to study and work,” said Justin Bloesch, a member of Harvard’s union. “Universities like Yale and Columbia, which still refuse to bargain, are increasingly out of step and should respect student workers’ decision to represent themselves as a union.”

The decisions by Harvard and Brown to embrace collective bargaining with their respective graduate student unions puts them in the company of Cornell, New York University, The New School: A University in New York City, Brandeis University, Tufts University, American University and Georgetown University — all institutions that have agreed to bargain with or have already begun bargaining with graduate workers who have voted to unionize.

But Local 33 has not experienced the same level of success. In February 2016, eight graduate student departments voted to unionize under the auspices of Local 33, using a controversial micro-unit strategy untested on other campuses. The vote was met with resistance from the University, but the union filed petitions for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. However, Local 33 retracted its petitions in February 2018, just two days before a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions vote on the appointment of President Donald Trump’s nomination to fill the vacant fifth seat on the NLRB. At the time, union representatives told the News that the group withdrew its petitions because it did not believe that the conservative, Trump-led NLRB would be sympathetic to its cause.

Local 33 co-president Lena Eckert-Erdheim GRD ’20 said the union will continue to work with other graduate student labor organizations this year as they organize on a variety of issues, including comprehensive health care for graduate students, racial justice and increased transparency with regard to teaching assignments.

“We’re thrilled that our colleagues at Harvard will be negotiating their first contract this fall. Unlike at Yale and Columbia, the administration at Harvard chose to respect the democratic choice of graduate students to form a union,” Eckert-Erdheim said

Asked to comment, University spokesman Tom Conroy sent the same response he provided to the News after Harvard agreed to negotiation with its graduate student union, saying it would be “premature and irresponsible” to bargain with Local 33 in the absence of a campuswide vote to unionize.

Yale has been critical of Local 33’s election strategy, which allowed the union to handpick specific Graduate School of Arts and Sciences departments  to hold unionization votes, saying that it yielded a slim, unrepresentative pool of graduate students — 9 percent, by the University’s count — who voted “yes” to unionizing. The University remains steadfastly opposed to negotiating with Local 33 under current conditions.

Meanwhile, Bloesch said the union is eagerly waiting for the bargaining process to begin this fall, especially given that other “graduate worker organizing has achieved incredible momentum.”

Harvard’s May breakthrough came on the heels of an April vote to unionize. Of 3,454 graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants who voted — out of 5,000 eligible — nearly 56 percent voted in favor of unionization. Harvard did not file any objections to the election, and one day after the NLRB certified the union, the University announced that it would enter negotiations.

Brown’s graduate student union still faces an impending election, which has to take place before April 2019, when the election agreement with the university will expire. According to Jeffrey Feldman, a representative of Brown’s graduate student union, even though the group stands on the brink of major success, it remains wary of the fact that it could lose the election or that the university might not respect the election outcome.

Feldman said Brown’s union communicates with other graduate student unions in “more or less formal ways,” citing dialogues between members and other resource-sharing programs across various institutions and the different arms of the Ivy League. He said the union has been inspired by graduate union victories at other universities, including Yale.

Carly Wanna |