Students at one of the nation’s premier universities are on track to earn their alma mater yet another honor, as members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union prepare for a union election on Nov. 16 and 17. Theirs would be the first graduate student union election at a private university since the National Labor Relations Board overturned a ruling denying collective bargaining rights to graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities in August.
Graduate student unions are common at public universities, but the NLRB’s ruling has galvanized labor organizers at private institutions from Cornell to the University of Chicago. In addition to being masters students, PhD candidates or research assistants, the NLRB said in its ruling, graduate students can also be considered employees of private universities.
The ruling came after the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, filed a petition with the NLRB seeking to represent all student employees who provide instructional services, including teaching assistants and research assistants. Since that ruling, members of the group at Columbia say they're planning for a union election of their own later this year, while Yale graduate students have also filed to hold elections. New York University voluntarily recognized its graduate student union in 2013.
Harvard’s budding union is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, but other campuses have organized with the help of the American Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union. The union hopes to represent all graduate students who serve in research and teaching positions. It does not include undergraduate research assistants.
The upcoming elections allow Harvard graduate students to vote on whether they want the union to represent them on issues related to employment. Harvard, which filed an amicus brief with the NLRB opposing the decision, has said it will not contest the legitimacy of the union election.
"We signed this agreement to move the process forward in a productive way. We are committed to encouraging a robust and open discussion,” Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber said in a statement. “We encourage [students] to talk with each other, with faculty, staff, and others, to look to the experiences of other institutions, and to consult press coverage and the academic literature to decide if unionization is in their best interest academically, financially, and personally.”
Harvard was not alone in its contention that graduate students are not employees. All seven Ivy League universities also advised the NLRB against the decision, along with Stanford and MIT. They argued that reclassifying graduate students as employees would “transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.”
Graduate students involved in the unionization effort at Harvard disagree. Abhinaz Reddy is a masters student in the School of Public Health. He just started working as a research assistant in radiomics, studying tumors. Reddy said he joined the unionization effort last year even though, as a second-year student in a two-year program, he’s unlikely to see any direct benefits from it.
“It may not affect my work, but we’re setting up a union so students have a voice,” said Reddy. “It’s not necessarily what I as one student want. It’s what we as a collective community come together and decide.”
At the University of Illinois Chicago, Reddy was president of the undergraduate student government. He said that experience convinced him of the power of negotiation between university administrators and the student body.
In addition to Illinois, Reddy and other hopeful Harvard union members are looking to local institutions that have had collective bargaining for years. State law allows for the recognition of student employee unions at public universities. Most of the 34 existing unions of graduate students are at public universities, accounting for about 64,000 graduate students, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. The NLRB ruling expands the same labor protections to students at private universities, Herbert said.
“The most important aspect of putting grad students under the National Labor Relations Act is they are granted the right of association under federal law. Graduate students and research assistants now have an entitlement to discuss with each other about their conditions," said Herbert. “It provides a legal protection for the formation of community.”
UMass Amherst, for example, has had union representation for 25 years. Nonetheless, the co-chair of Amherst’s union (Graduate Employee Organization / UAW 2322), Santiago Vidales, said they were watching the NLRB case eagerly.
“Everyone was kind of waiting and itching for NLRB to make this decision,” said Vidales, a third-year PhD student studying Latin American and U.S. Latino literature and culture. Vidales said collective bargaining has won UMass students better compensation and health benefits, but also stronger protections against harassment and discrimination.
Vidales had some words of advice for Harvard students ahead of their vote on whether to elect representation in the UAW union: “Trust your membership,” he said. “The way a union grows is by having trust in one another, building relationships. Contracts are grown by people power.”