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Harvard grad students call off strike

Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press/file 2018)
Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press/file 2018)Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Harvard University graduate students called off their strike and will return to work Wednesday, despite the fact that they have not yet reached a tentative contract agreement with the administration.

The bargaining committee for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers sent an e-mail to members Monday announcing the end of the work stoppage that began Dec. 3, noting that progress has been made and that Harvard said publicly it intended to reach a contract by the end of January.

University officials, however, said no such timeline has been given.

In a Dec. 19 message proposing federal mediation, provost Alan Garber stated that the university hopes to finalize a contract “in the month ahead.” A Harvard spokesman said this is not a deadline but rather an expression of hope that differences can be resolved.

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But the union has zeroed in on that statement.

“If they said in the coming month, we think that’s totally achievable,” said Justin Bloesch, a PhD candidate in economics who is a member of the bargaining committee. “It’s something that we’re going to hold them to.”

Bloesch declined to say if the union would call for another walkout if a tentative agreement doesn’t come together in January.

“We have a lots of ways that we can organize and keep the pressure on the administration,” he said. “We’re going to have to see how mediation goes.”

Classes resume Jan. 27, but many teaching positions officially begin Jan. 1.

A mid-December bargaining session — the first since the strike began — produced agreements on six tentative contract provisions, adding to others that had been agreed to previously. But the two sides remain deadlocked on three critical issues: wages, health care, and grievance procedures related to sexual harassment and discrimination.

The e-mail to union members cited these agreements, and the upcoming bargaining session with federal mediators, as signs that Harvard is dedicated to hammering out a contract.

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Harvard declined to comment on the strike ending, but noted that first contracts at other universities have taken up to 18 months. Harvard and the student workers started negotiating in October 2018.

“The University is committed to the mediation process and hopeful it will help resolve differences that remain between the two sides,” spokesman Jonathan Swain said in a statement.

Holding a strike during winter break can be challenging, with fewer grad students around to picket and undergraduate supporters and staff gone from campus.

The union, which represents 4,000 student workers who teach classes, grade papers, and manage research labs, suspended picket lines over the holidays and engaged in a “virtual picket,” writing and calling administrators and deans to keep the pressure on.

But the union said the work stoppage had an impact during finals, with some professors opting to assign shorter final papers or give multiple choice exams to cut back on grading while their graduate assistants are out on strike. One student said he was studying for tests by watching YouTube videos because his teaching assistant wasn’t working. Other unions honored the grad students’ picket line by refusing to make deliveries and pick up trash.

Politicians, including Democratic Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Katherine Clark, have stopped by to offer their support, and 22 Harvard graduates serving in the House of Representatives — including Clark, Joseph P. Kennedy III, Stephen Lynch, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — signed a letter to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow noting they are “deeply committed to a prompt and satisfactory resolution of the strike.” 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.

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The fact that the union agreed to call off the strike demonstrates that both sides feel confident that an agreement is within reach, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

“It’s clear that there’s a genuine sense that there’s been enough progress that it would make sense to resume going back to work,” he said. “There’s probably a lot going on behind the scenes.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Globe staff writer Deirdre Fernandes contributed to this report.