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Harvard Graduate Students Threaten to Authorize Strike

July 18, 2019, 8:27 PM

Members of a Harvard graduate student-worker union are threatening to hold a strike authorization vote if the university doesn’t change its posture in negotiations over a collective contract, more than 300 members said in a letter to the university president.

The vote would be a preliminary move—a “yes” would give leadership authority to call for the group to strike when they believe it’s warranted—but it’s significant nonetheless.

There’s been a marked increase in organizing among adjunct and full-time university faculty and student-workers since about 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board said student assistants can be considered legal “employees” with unionization and other workplace rights. The federal government under President Donald Trump has moved to reverse that policy, leading organizers to seek different routes to unionizing—such as asking administrators to voluntarily recognize a union when a majority of workers indicate their support.

The tension that usually accompanies those kinds of organizing drives caused a high-profile strike in June at the University of Chicago. Moves toward a strike at Harvard University will almost certainly draw scrutiny to both the union members’ efforts and demands, as well as the Ivy League college’s response.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union is affiliated with the United Auto Workers. The group’s July 15 letter to President Lawrence S. Bacow suggests the negotiations have been tough since the process started in October 2018, with stalemates on various terms of the graduate students’ employment. Harvard is making “untenable” proposals and counteroffers on issues including mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as medical benefits, the HGSU members said.

“We have just hit a point where it was clear that our collective voice was not being heard. So we started talking about going on strike to win much-needed protections from harassment and discrimination, fair pay, and adequate healthcare,” Alexandra Stanton, a graduate student in the medical sciences who drafted the letter, said in an email.

The university sees all this differently. We “do feel that calls for a strike by HGSU-UAW are unwarranted,” university spokesman Jonathan M. Swain told Bloomberg Law.

Harvard maintains that its offers on wages and benefits are in line with the terms found in contracts between other universities and their graduate student workers.

“Although the University and HGSU-UAW still have areas of disagreement between them on issues important to both sides, the University disagrees with any characterization that these negotiations have not seen progress,” Swain said. Harvard “remains committed to negotiating in good faith and to reaching an agreement that is good for student workers and the University. ”

Nondiscrimination, Harassment Proposal

The proposal the union has put forward regarding nondiscrimination and harassment would create a separate process for union members that would place complainants and the accused “face-to-face in an adversarial arbitration hearing, potentially with lawyers and cross-examination.” The university said it doesn’t think HGSU’s proposal is appropriate in those kinds of complex and sensitive cases.

Adversarial and confidential arbitration is a common requirement in private-sector workplace disputes.

“Harvard remains committed to continuing to strengthen its resources devoted to addressing and preventing harassment and discrimination, and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all members of the Harvard community,” Swain said.

He added that the UAW International Union has opposed the kind of cross-examination “that Harvard believes could be the outcome of the” HGSU’s proposal on sexual harassment and bias protections.

‘Committed’ to First Step Toward Strike

The parties scheduled three formal bargaining sessions for this summer—one is remaining—and have also held a number of other informal meetings.

The members who signed the letter said they’re committed “to organizing to authorize our bargaining committee to call a strike if the Harvard administration does not allow a reasonable path forward for negotiation.”

A separate email to members indicates that the group is already identifying and organizing more members who’d vote in favor of strike authorization.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Phil Kushin at pkushin@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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