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Harvard grad student unionization up in the air

For Harvard University, the presidential election wasn’t the only high-profile vote of 2016. In November, the institution’s graduate students cast ballots on whether to join a union. The initial tally has the noes leading by approximately 180 votes—but the eligibility of more than 300 votes is currently being challenged. If union supporters carry the day, the world’s wealthiest university will become home to the newest chapter of the United Auto Workers (UAW), marking one of the first instances of a private university being forced to accept a union of students against its will.

Students who favor unionization hope the UAW will help them settle disputes with the university, earn more money, and negotiate for better benefits; a group of biochemistry Ph.D. candidates, for instance, said that they are hoping for full dental coverage. Union organizer Jack Nicoludis, a graduate student in the chemistry and chemical biology department, notes that one of the most important functions a union can serve is to provide a formal mechanism to address student grievances. While visiting labs to promote the unionization effort, Nicoludis heard from research assistants who felt that they were asked to work unreasonable hours, and from female students who felt uncomfortable approaching their advisers about lewd comments; a union could potentially help resolve these situations, Nicoludis says.

But much of the opposition to the union seems to have come from Harvard’s scientists, which made up about half of the approximately 3200 graduate students eligible to vote. Many in the sciences are unconvinced that the pros of joining a labor union outweigh the cons. Some did not like the idea of taking time away from their research for a strike, should one be called. And with many already receiving yearly raises on the order of those proposed by union organizers, some see little benefit to paying 1.44% of their income in UAW dues. “We are paid very well in sciences, especially at Harvard, and our working conditions are good,” says Elizabeth West, a physics graduate student. Her name appeared among an informal group of 18 students who signed an anti-union email sent to the graduate student body a week before the vote; 14 of those signatories came from the sciences.

Another physics graduate student, Jae Hyeon Lee, who also signed the letter, was a particularly vocal opponent. Lee organized for the union in its early days but ultimately changed his mind, launching an anti-union website and writing an opinion piece for the student newspaper railing against the UAW. “I’m not against unionization in general,” Lee says. “But I came to believe that this union, and the antagonist tone it sets, is not the right approach for Harvard.” He favors working through traditional channels like the Physics Graduate Student Council, which he is a member of.

The issue of grad student unionization hinges on the distinction between work and education. Under federal law, employees have certain rights that students do not, including unionizing. Because graduate training combines elements of both employment and education, doctoral students have historically existed in a gray area. Students at public universities have been empowered to unionize for decades. Private institutions, on the other hand, were not required to recognize their graduate students’ right to unionize until this past August, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants are employees.  

Few students interviewed at Harvard questioned the value of a union for students hired to teach classes, which is often seen as work that is separate from the research students conduct for their dissertations. Many had stories about friends, often in the humanities, who were overworked as teaching assistants, or paid months late; the collective bargaining a union offers could potentially lead to a contract with the university that addresses such issues and helps student teachers in such situations.

New York University’s graduate student union, which includes only teaching assistants and which the institution voluntarily recognized in 2013, has had successes in this area, says Seana Lymer, unit representative for the union and a Ph.D. candidate in biology. “NYU was hiring teachers for the summer and then, the week before classes were supposed to start, canceling classes that didn’t have enough students and leaving people without the money they were relying on,” Lymer says. “One of the successes [the union] had was getting those teachers some of the money they were promised.”

But although some students in the sciences teach—and rely on the stipend from that work to cover their living expenses—many others don’t, instead obtaining their funding from grants or fellowships that do not require teaching. For these students, the line between their work and education may be blurrier. “The paid teaching that students in the humanities do is clearly separate from the research they do for their education,” says Elizabeth Jaensch, a graduate student in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard Medical School who voted against unionization. “In the sciences, we earn our stipends by doing the same research that is our dissertation.”

Nicoludis sees it in a different light. “When you’re in a lab in the sciences, your adviser is really your boss,” he says. “The structure is actually more similar to a traditional workplace than it is for humanities students, who have an adviser but do more independent research.” He and his fellow union organizers in the student body hope that a victory at Harvard, in addition to the win earlier this month at Columbia University (currently being challenging by that university), will embolden students organizing at other private institutions.

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