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Harvard graduate student union votes to authorize a strike

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

More than 2,000 unionized graduate student workers at Harvard University have voted to authorize a strike, after a year of negotiations with administrators failed to produce an agreement on a contract.

The vote, which began last week and ended Friday with a tally of 2,425 yes votes and 254 nos, gives the union bargaining committee authority to call a strike but set no date for a decision. Roughly 4,000 members were eligible to vote, according to the union.

Union negotiators have said Harvard will not budge on issues of pay, benefits, and protections from discrimination and harassment.

In a statement, Harvard said it believes “calls for a strike are unwarranted.”


“The University continues to approach these negotiations in good faith and has offered substantive proposals that address the concerns raised,” by the union’s negotiating team.

Noah Toyonaga, a research assistant in physics, said the vote sends “a clear message to the administration that as student workers, we are willing to take action.”

“Harvard’s unwillingness to agree to key protections from harassment and discrimination is unconscionable, given how prevalent these problems are,” Toyonaga said in a statement.

Graduate students at the Ivy League institution voted in April 2018 to unionize, creating a bargaining unit of nearly 5,000 students, including several hundred undergraduates in teaching positions.

The union announced last month that it was contemplating a strike vote.

Olivia Woldemikael, a teaching fellow, said Harvard “needs to take our concerns about our working conditions seriously.”

“We are voting to authorize a strike because student workers need basic rights and protections — and we need them now,” Woldemikael said in a statement Friday.

Strikes of graduate students — and even unions for those students — are rare. The United Auto Workers, parent of the Harvard Graduate Students Union, has more graduate student workers than any other union, with affiliate unions at about 30 universities. Most are public institutions, including much of the University of Massachusetts and California state systems.


The movement to unionize students who teach and conduct research began amid the campus-centered political foment of the late 1960s, but universities have often opposed unionization. Past strikes by graduate students have more often been a response to an institution’s refusal to negotiate than its failure to reach an agreement.

That was the case last year at Columbia University in New York, where graduate student workers picketed for a week to protest the Ivy League institution’s refusal to negotiate. Columbia eventually agreed to bargain.

The future of graduate student unions is unclear after the National Labor Relations Board — which has taken a conservative swing under the Trump administration — issued a ruling last month denying legal protections for student workers to form unions at private universities, reversing course on a 2016 decision.

The board oversees only private institutions; public universities are governed by state laws.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.