Unionized graduate students at Harvard University could soon walk off their campus teaching and research jobs if negotiators for the Ivy League institution don’t budge on issues of pay, benefits, and protections for discrimination and harassment, union officials said Saturday.
The Harvard Graduate Students Union has been bargaining with the university for nearly a year to no avail, representatives said, and its negotiating committee is mulling a vote that would authorize the union to strike if the sides can’t agree.
“We want to get a contract soon. We’ve been asking for the administration to move faster on bargaining for a long time,” said Jenni Austiff, 27, a member of the negotiating team and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
Austiff said the timeline for obtaining a strike authorization and potentially enacting it is unclear so far, but union negotiators are preparing to make their moves this fall.
A Harvard spokesman said by e-mail Saturday that the university “has offered proposals on wages and benefits” that are competitive with other universities and “has proposed an 8 percent wage increase” over three years. Harvard has also proposed the creation of a $500,000-plus fund to help pay for health, dental, and child care, he said.
Further complicating the situation, the National Labor Relations Board — which has taken a conservative swing as the Trump administration has replaced Obama-era appointees — announced Friday a proposed rule that would disallow the categorization of student workers at private universities as “employees.”
It’s unclear how that regulation would affect existing student workers’ unions. Jonathan Swain, the Harvard spokesman, said the university is “reviewing the proposed rule.”
Members of the union said they are concerned about fair wages and job security for students holding teaching and research positions, and about access to health care — including mental health care — for an academic community under extreme pressure, one in which student suicides have led to dramatic headlines and calls for change.
“We are a population that desperately needs access to mental health care,” said Ege Yumusak, 26, a member of the union’s negotiating team and a doctoral candidate in philosophy. “Right now, the university has made a blanket refusal to discuss health care with us.”
But the major issue that’s “fueling strike conversations,” Yumusak said, is that “student workers need an additional option when it comes to harassment and discrimination claims in our workplaces.”
To that end, the union is calling for more resources to address harassment based on characteristics such as race or national origin, members said, and for a neutral third party to address allegations of harassment and discrimination without fear or favor for Harvard.
The current system, Austiff said, “fails to provide people with the remedies they need and sometimes even allows the harassment to continue.”
The students pointed to former Harvard vice provost Jorge Dominguez, who engaged in a pattern of “unwelcome sexual conduct” and policy violations across decades spent teaching at Harvard, according to an internal investigation.
“We really need a culture change at this university, and a union contract is a good way of achieving that,” Yumusak said.
She said establishing a better system to address discrimination and harassment would have a ripple effect across the university, helping to protect students and workers outside the union, as well as members.
Swain, the Harvard spokesman, said in a statement that the arbitration process favored by the union would put accusers, the accused, and witnesses “face-to-face in an adversarial arbitration hearing, potentially with lawyers and cross-examination, something the University does not believe is appropriate for these important, complex and sensitive issues.”
Swain added that the union’s desired process “would not be compliant with either current or proposed federal Title IX regulations.”
The union disputes Harvard’s claim and contends that an accuser would not be required to face the accused, though the university could request it.
But making an allegation under the current system can be career suicide, said Marisa Borreggine, 23, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences who is a union organizer but not on the negotiating team.
“The threat of retaliation for coming forward is very real,” Borreggine said. “You risk ruining your career because people won’t believe you. You can go through the process, and have your whole life put under the microscope.”