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Harvard calls for federal mediator in dispute with striking grad students

Harvard University.
Harvard University.AP/Associated Press

More than two weeks into a strike and with negotiations at an impasse, Harvard University is seeking outside help to resolve a long-running dispute with its graduate student workers union.

The university announced on Thursday that it wants to bring in a federal mediator to smooth out negotiations with the union in the hopes of coming to an agreement in the next few weeks, before the start of the new semester.

Despite a negotiation session earlier this week, the two sides remain divided on the core issues of pay and workplace protections. Graduate student workers, who help teach classes, grade papers, and manage research labs, have been on strike since Dec. 3.

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Some end-of-semester study sessions for undergraduate students have been canceled, and in certain cases professors have cut back on the length of final papers or have opted to give multiple-choice exams, to reduce their grading workload while their graduate assistants are on strike.

It’s best if the sides can come to an agreement on their own, but sometimes that isn’t possible, said Arnold Zack, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and a former president of the National Academy of Arbitrators.

“The mediator calms the waters,” Zack said. “It’s valuable to have independent assessment.”

Harvard continues to believe the strike is unnecessary, said Alan M. Garber, the university’s provost, in a message to the community on Thursday.

But the first contract with the new graduate student worker union is complex and continues to be challenging, Garber said in announcing that Harvard has proposed engaging the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

“It would be our hope that the mediator would find ways to navigate past the barriers that both parties have encountered throughout many hours at the bargaining table in order to reach an agreement,” Garber said.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers is considering the offer of mediation, a spokeswoman said.

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The union has called for an indefinite strike.

Over the past two weeks, graduates students have been picketing across campus. Politicians, including Democratic congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Katherine Clark have stopped at the rally in support, as have some religious leaders.

The graduate student workers and their supporters have also taken their protests to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, holding events in the offices of Harvard’s governing board members.

“We will continue to pressure the administration in many ways until we get a fair contract,” said Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, a fourth-year student in biostatistics wrote in an update to graduate students earlier this week.

How disruptive the strike has been to the campus and to the day-to-day operations at Harvard has been difficult to access. While the union represents 4,000 student workers, not all have stopped working.

The strike has also drawn less national media attention than the Harvard dining hall workers’ strike in 2016. During that strike, students staged a sit-in and took to social media to complain about the declining quality of the food in the university’s cafeterias. Celebrities including Ben Stiller joined in support.

Still, some Harvard students said the campus has changed in recent weeks as many graduate students stopped working.

A senior who declined to give his name said he was studying for his tests by watching YouTube videos, because his teaching assistant was on strike.

“It’s frustrating that the undergrads have to bear the brunt,” he said.

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The strike, along with recent protests over Harvard’s decision to deny tenure to a popular ethnic studies professor, has increased tension on campus, some students said.

There has also been a greater police presence, said Saul Glist, 19, a sophomore.

“You couldn’t walk through Harvard Yard without walking through multiple picket lines with multiple people protesting,” Glist said on Thursday as he finished his final paper before driving home to New York for winter break.

“It all feels unresolved. People are leaving, and we’ll see what happens over the break.”

Still unsettled in the negotiations are pay packages and how the university will handle sexual harassment complaints.

Stipends for Harvard doctoral students vary by school and range from $35,500 to $43,000 annually.

Harvard has proposed an 8.2 percent pay increase over three years for a majority of the graduate students in the union. But union members said that would end up being less than the 3 percent annual raise many of them have received in recent years.

The union has countered with a proposal for a 5 percent raise in the first year of the contract and a 3.5 percent increase in subsequent years, according to union representatives.

Under the union proposal, the first raise would be retroactive to July 1, 2019, and would supplement the 3 percent raise Harvard gave graduate students at the time.

The union also wants an outside arbitrator to handle complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

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But Harvard officials have said that would circumvent the federal Title IX sexual harassment complaint process, creating an inequitable system for students who are in the bargaining unit and those outside of it.

Zack said an outside mediator may help both sides find a compromise in the coming weeks.

“There’s no alternative; they’re not going to cancel the next semester,” Zack said.


Deirdre Fernandes
can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.