The Harvard Graduate Students Union delivered a letter to university administrators Thursday signed by more than 500 student workers who committed to organizing a strike if they cannot negotiate a contract by the end of the month, union officials said.
The union has been negotiating with Harvard since March, and the existing agreement expires Wednesday, according to the letter. If they cannot come to an agreement by then, the signers of the letter “commit to begin organizing to authorize, and if authorized, to participate in a strike alongside our peers.”
The union, which represents almost 5,000 students who teach classes, grade papers, and manage research labs, still will have to hold a vote of its full membership before it can authorize a strike.
“We just wanted to show them once again that our members are tired of their bargaining tactics and their refusal to concretely and meaningfully engage with our proposals,” Brandon Mancilla, the union’s president, said in an interview. “None of our proposals are super-radical … but they refused these things as if they were outlandish.”
If authorized, the strike would be second time in 19 months that Harvard grad students went on strike amid contentious contract negotiations. In December 2019, hundreds of grad students walked off their jobs and out of classes to march through a snowy Harvard Yard in a strike that lasted most of the month.
Sticking points over a new agreement include wages, health care benefits, and a third-party grievance process for addressing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, according to Mancilla, a doctoral student in Latin American and Caribbean history.
“Harvard has the attitude that, given that we’re students and workers, they’ll point to our student status as reasons why we don’t deserve a living wage, why we don’t deserve protections against harassment, why we don’t deserve things like dental [care],” he said. “Members are fed up with that kind of paternalistic attitude at the table.”
Jason Newton, a spokesman for Harvard, said in an emailed statement on Friday, “The University continues to negotiate in good faith with UAW-HGSU. We have had 13 bargaining sessions over the past three months, plus two bargaining sessions on the calendar for next week. We also have several smaller working groups with the Union dealing with some specific issues. The University is disappointed to see the Union raise the prospect of a strike at this stage, but we will continue in good faith to work towards an agreement.”
Both sides agreed to their first one-year contract last June, more than two years after student workers voted to unionize in April 2018. In the letter, union members say they agreed to last year’s contract so they could secure short-term safety amid a crisis.
“We signed our first contract at the start of an ongoing global pandemic, at a time when student workers were experiencing immense difficulties, financial and otherwise,” the letter reads. “The contract provided much needed relief and security in the short term, but it has remained clear to us that existing contract provisions are not enough in the long term.”
Harvard has offered no pay raises in the first year of the new contract and meager increases going forward, in contrast to the 6 percent raise the union requested for the first two years of the contract, Mancilla said.
“They have the ability to pay, they just don’t think it’s quote-unquote ‘prudent’ to pay,” he said.
The contract agreed upon last year gave a 2.8 percent raise to salaried workers and a 25 percent raise to hourly workers earning the state minimum wage. It included a $350,000 fund to help offset the cost of child care for student employees who are parents and nearly $600,000 to help offset health care premiums and copayments.
That agreement came almost seven months after students staged its first strike.
The union had then been negotiating with Harvard for more than a year without reaching an agreement. Harvard called that strike “unwarranted” and said it would not help resolve disagreements over the contract.
Harvard negotiators had a “pretty muted” reaction when presented with the union’s letter on Thursday, Mancilla said.
“But they have it in their hands now,” he said. “Next week we have two more bargaining sessions before the contract expires, so we’ll see how things move.”