A heated union strike looms over Harvard’s upcoming freshman parents’ weekend as the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers plan to picket for three days in an attempt to press the university to meet their contract demands.
The union announced its plans on Sept. 30, after more than 90 percent of members voted in favor of a strike.
Nearly seven months into negotiations, the two parties have failed to come to a compromise regarding increased compensation, amendments to the Title IX process, and recognizing a union shop clause, a provision that would require all undergraduate workers to belong to or pay dues to the union as a condition of retaining employment.
The strike, which will be the union’s second in two years, comes as Harvard’s endowment, already the largest college fund in the world, grew to over $53 billion during the pandemic and as the university reported a surplus operating budget of $283 million.
“Harvard continues to boast about their endowment growth while also denying us key amendments in our contract,” union president Brandon Mancilla said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I don’t see logic anymore between [Harvard] not only having all this money and resources but being very proud and flaunting it. And at the same time, saying it wouldn’t be financially prudent to pay anyone a living wage.”
Harvard declined to speak with the Globe Tuesday.
Following a meeting with the union’s bargaining committee and university officials, Provost Alan M. Garber sent a campus-wide e-mail proclaiming the university’s commitment to “good faith” negotiations and outlined the university’s updated position on the union’s striking points.
“We have made progress toward an agreement, but we are also mindful of HGSU-UAW’s current plans to strike beginning tomorrow,” Garber said in the statement. “The Provost’s Office will continue to work with School leadership to ensure that the academic progress of our students can continue if a strike occurs.”
The two parties will continue to deliberate throughout the strike, which will occur from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, coinciding with plans for the annual freshman parents’ weekend festivities.
According to Garber’s e-mail, the university’s most recent proposal includes a 3 percent increase plus a 0.5 percent one-time adjustment to base salaries.
Mancilla said anything below the union’s proposed 5.75 percent increase is “essentially a pay cut” given the increase in annual inflation, rise in Cambridge’s cost of living, and the increased workload many student employees took on during the pandemic.
“It is ridiculous that the university has asked us to sacrifice so much,” Mancilla said, adding that during the pandemic the college has made budget cuts that “dramatically” affected students. “Now, it’s time for them to pay their fair share to their workers. We all deserve a bigger piece of this pie.”
Kai De Leon DeJesus is a sophomore at Harvard and organizer with the Student Labor Action Movement, an undergraduate-led coalition of workers and students. She said the role of graduate students in the academic setting cannot be understated.
“If you take a reasonable look at this university you see that what truly runs it are the workers. On the educational side, it’s the graduate students,” said DeJesus, who said some of her classes are run entirely by graduate students. “When you look at a university that has profited so much even in the face of a pandemic… It’s embarrassing and disgusting that grad students continue to have to seek second jobs and are constantly worrying about minuscule expenses.”
For months, the union was also fighting for an amendment to the Harvard Title IX process that would include an independent, third-party grievance procedure. Last week, it conceded on that specific point in an effort to push negotiations forward, according to Margaret Czerwienski, a union member and PhD student studying social anthropology.
Czerwienski and DeJesus, who both went through the Title XI process at Harvard, said the union’s compromise was disappointing but tactical and necessary.
Now, the contract demands the university provide financial assistance to student workers who go through the Title IX process so they can cover legal fees and requests that independent experts sit on hearing boards during legal examinations.
The university’s recent proposal includes “a legal expense fund” to provide financial assistance to student workers when retaining attorneys to assist or advise them on workplace issues. It also provides arbitration as an option for non-Title IX cases of alleged discrimination in which the union believes bias or conflict of interest has affected the outcome of the internal process.
“I’ve seen how unfair the university’s system is,” Czerwienski said of Harvard’s handling of cases of harassment and discrimination. “I’m appalled and outraged. I cannot sit by and let another person go through the process the way it currently is.”
The last main striking point is recognition of union shop, which Mancilla, the union president, said is “essential to any sustainable union.” He emphasized that Massachusetts is not a right-to-work state and said the university has reached similar agreements with other unions on campus.
The university’s recent proposal did not address the union shop clause.
Junior and undergraduate student union organizer Will Sutton expressed solidarity to the cause of graduate students and all other unions across campus who are striking for their own contracts.
“This weekend, parents will see they are paying quite a bit of money to a university that’s underpaying and exploiting their workers,” Sutton said. “It’s going to be really hard to look at this situation and be on the university’s side because it’s clear the grad students are willing to come to the bargaining table in good faith. But parents will see that school is more interested in holding onto a handful of pennies than giving basic protections.”
Julia Carlin can be reached at email@example.com.