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Harvard grad students vote to unionize

The Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Harvard University graduate students have voted to join the United Auto Workers, part of a wave of teaching and research assistants on private college campuses embracing the labor movement.

In a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election held Wednesday and Thursday, the vote was 1,931 to 1,523, creating a bargaining unit of nearly 5,000 students, including several hundred undergraduates in teaching positions, the UAW and Harvard said Friday. The union said Harvard is committed to bargaining on a contract, but the university said it has not yet decided.

The UAW, with its deep blue-collar roots, has become a seemingly unlikely bastion of academic organizing, attracting more grad student members than any other union.


Since 1990, when the union successfully organized graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it has brought graduate students at four other public universities into the fold, including the massive California State University system. The effort accelerated at private universities following a 2016 NLRB ruling that recognized Columbia University students’ right to organize.

At Harvard, those backing the union said they are looking for stability in their wages (the usual 3 percent annual raise was cut in half this school year), more robust health care, and a better process for resolving grievances. But above all, they are seeking bargaining power, said Ben Green, a fourth-year PhD student in applied math.

“The main thing that we really want is to have a greater say, greater democracy, in our working conditions,” he said. “By joining with UAW, we’re also joining with these other universities organizing with them. We’re building power not just for graduate workers at Harvard, but for graduate workers across the country.”

This is the second time Harvard graduate students have held a union vote. The results of the first election, in the fall of 2016, were scrapped following disputes over the voter list, leading to months of litigation.


“Regardless of the outcome, this election underscores the importance of the university’s commitment to continuing to improve the experience of our students,” Harvard said in a statement. “We want every student to thrive here and to benefit from Harvard’s extraordinary academic opportunities.”

The rise in unionization among graduate students reflects the growing role of younger, more white-collar workers in unions. Last year, a third of new union members nationwide were in professional or technical occupations, and more than three-quarters were under age 35, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Teaching and research assistants at many public-sector colleges and universities are covered by state collective bargaining laws, most of which consider grad students to be employees. Their counterparts at private schools, however, are at the mercy of the NLRB, which has gone back and forth on the issue.

The UAW, officially the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, has 45,000 grad students and 30,000 academic workers among its 400,000 members. Although the bulk of its members are auto workers and other manufacturing employees, it also represents legal aid attorneys, Foxwoods casino workers, Museum of Modern Art employees, Village Voice writers, and Sierra Club staffers.

Interest from those at private colleges and universities was sparked in 2013, when NYU grad students voted to join the UAW through a non-NLRB election. It remains the only private university with a collective bargaining agreement. The following year, the New School and Columbia kicked off campaigns to join the UAW, followed by Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern, and Boston University.


“From that point on there was tremendous energy,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, which covers New England.

A 2016 decision by the NLRB, reinstating the right of grad students at private universities to organize, stoked the fire further.

Last year, grad students at Tufts and Brandeis both voted to join SEIU Local 509, among the more than 20,000 private-sector students involved in union campaigns in the past year and a half, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

But with President Trump in office, and his three appointees giving the NLRB a 3-2 Republican majority, the pendulum could swing back.

Given all the back and forth on whether grad students at private universities have the right to organize, and the possibility that a more conservative labor board would say they don’t, some students have become reluctant to test their luck with the NLRB. Rather than risking setting a new legal precedent that could crush other union drives, some grad students — including those organizing at BC, Yale, and the University of Chicago — have abandoned their efforts to unionize through the NLRB and are trying to pressure universities to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with them, which can be difficult.

“These workers and our union are not defeated or demoralized by the threat posed by an anti-worker labor board put in place by President Trump and the Republican Congress,” Kushner said. “We are inventing new strategies, switching tactics, and taking bold steps to go outside of the NLRB.”


Some campaigns have reached a fever pitch. Graduate students at Columbia, whose membership with the UAW has been certified by the NLRB, voted to strike next week if the school continues to refuse to bargain.

At Harvard, the administration has sent a series of e-mails to students making a case against unionization, referencing the Columbia strike and noting that school deans and leaders would be “legally prohibited from working directly with individual students” on matters of wages and working conditions.

Along with increased stipends, better health care coverage, and more stability in their work, Harvard organizers want a sexual harassment policy that gives students more protection. Just last month, the prominent Harvard government professor Jorge Dominguez was placed on leave, and then abruptly retired, after allegations of sexual misconduct spanning three decades came to light. Despite the fact that multiple women had complained to university administrators over the years, Dominguez continued to climb the ranks.

A contract recently negotiated by the UAW at the University of Connecticut strengthened protections against sexual harassment, union officials note, including detailing specific offenses — such as sexual innuendo, unwanted touching, and standing too close — and expanding the time period that students have to file a complaint.

Grad students are highly dependent on their advisers, especially in science, where research tends to be funded by grants awarded to specific professors, making those students more vulnerable to abuse because their jobs depend on that person, said Green, the Harvard applied-math student. And as it stands, there is no clear process for addressing complaints, said Niharika Singh, a fourth-year PhD student in public policy.


“With a union we have expanded options for dealing with sexual harassment on campus,” she said. “These are not minor issues. They are pervasive.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.