After five years of quietly organizing, researchers and lecturers at Harvard University went public Monday with efforts to form a union.
Organizers started collecting authorization cards to prompt either voluntary recognition of the union by the university or a formal election by the National Labor Relations Board. The group, which represents up to 6,000 non-tenure-track workers, aims to raise wages, address job insecurity, and improve working conditions and benefits.
Ana Isabel Keilson, a lecturer in social studies at Harvard College, said she has participated in organizing efforts since 2018. The work picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic when workers across the nation started questioning working conditions and sacrifices made for employers, Keilson said. For the Harvard organizers, the primary concern is pay that hasn’t kept up with the rising cost of living in Boston.
“Non-tenure teaching faculty and post-docs started sharing our experience and aspects of the job we love and want to protect and aspects that could be better,” Keilson said in an interview. “We wanted a seat at the table.”
Thomas Dichter, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, said he expects a good turnout from the card-collection phase following “hundreds of conversations” with other non-tenure track faculty. Dichter plans to help collect cards from workers Monday.
“There is an enormous amount of support and enthusiasm for this idea,” Dichter said. “I am excited to hit the pavement.”
Harvard declined to comment Monday.
The union effort at Harvard moved forward on the same day that more than 1,700 research and teaching assistants at Northeastern University filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, according to union officials.
The organization efforts are the latest example of higher education workers fighting for better working conditions across the nation as attitudes toward labor unions shift. In November 2021, Harvard’s graduate student union voted to accept a new labor contract. Last month, graduate workers at Yale University voted to form a union after 30 years of organizing. And 48,000 higher education workers in California landed an agreement last fall after a six-week strike.
An August Gallup poll found 71 percent of Americans approve of unions, which represents a 3 percent increase from 2021 and the highest approval rating recorded since 1965.
Young workers fed up with worsening working conditions are largely driving unionization efforts, said Gerald Friedman, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Researchers have no protection,” Friedman said. “They serve at the whim of their institutions.”
Rallies are planned for February 14 with slogans including, “The Best Valentine’s Day Card is a Union Authorization Card.”
Organizers said in a statement that Harvard’s salaries and benefits are uncompetitive and unequal. The group is also concerned about conditions for international workers.
“The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge is $2,700,” the statement said. “However, many workers make as little as $50,000 per year, leaving thousands at the richest university in the world rent-burdened.”
Harvard Academic Workers is affiliated with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, which represents about 100,000 academic workers across the United States. The UAW is also the parent union of the Harvard Graduate Students Union.
“We make Harvard work, but we are not included in Harvard’s systems of governance,” Keilson said. “I think Harvard can do better.”
Risa Lieberwitz, academic director of the Worker Institute in Cornell’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations, said that declines in tenure-track faculty positions have contributed to higher education employees feeling insecure in their jobs.
”That has gone along with hiring more faculty at low wages with less security,” Lieberwitz said. “Under those kind of employment conditions, (people say), what can we do to join together to address this?”