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Harvard, Other Universities Must Recognize Grad Student Unions, Labor Board Rules

The decision handed down Tuesday marks a significant milestone for the unionization effort at Harvard

Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
By Leah S. Yared, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: August 23, 2016, at 4:15 p.m.

Overturning precedent, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that student assistants at private universities are considered employees with collective bargaining rights, a move that would force Harvard to legally recognize an elected graduate student union.

The 3-1 decision handed down Tuesday marks a significant milestone for the unionization effort at Harvard, which began in April 2015 and has since grown in size and sophistication despite opposition from University administrators. However, the ruling has implications far beyond Harvard and comes as debate over the issue of graduate student unionization has roiled campuses across the country. The decision does not only affect Ph.D. students or graduate students; the NLRB ruled that employees under a collective bargaining unit could include undergraduate teaching assistants and research assistants as well.

Harvard’s unionization movement, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, ramped up efforts over the last year to push Harvard to recognize a graduate student union and has already gained more than enough support among graduate students to call for a union election.

Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. By Jessica M. Wang

HGSU-UAW spokesperson and graduate student Jack M. Nicoludis said the group is “excited” and that the decision only reinforces what supporters already said they knew: that students are workers. As of February, 60 percent of graduate students the HGSU-UAW considers employed by the University—including teaching fellows and research assistants—had signed an authorization card, double the percentage needed to call for an election. Nicoludis added that the union effort is still discussing its actions moving forward, especially given the influx of new students at the start of a school year.

Although plans are not concrete, union organizers recently posted a “roadmap” outlining the path forward on the HGSU-UAW website. “Once our supermajority is established, we will approach the administration and demand they agree to a fair process for certifying our union,” the site reads. “They will have the opportunity to do the right thing by recognizing our right to form a union by simply agreeing.”

Administrators have been vocal about their opposition to unionization. Last September, University President Drew G. Faust said a union would change the relationship between students and faculty to one based in labor, not mentorship. In late February, Harvard and other universities filed a joint amicus brief to the NLRB arguing against unionization.

But the NLRB ruled that, counter to the University’s arguments, recognizing students as employees would not infringe upon academic freedom.

In a statement, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote that unions play an "important role at the University" but that Harvard stands by its initial position.

"[W]e continue to believe that the relationship between students and the University is primarily about education, and that unionization will disrupt academic programs and freedoms, mentoring, and research at Harvard."

Should students move forward with the election process, Cowenhoven wrote that the University "would urge our students to get the facts, learn about the issues, understand the impact of unionization, and cast an informed vote."

"A labor union representing Harvard students will impact not only current students, but also faculty, staff, and future students," Cowenhoven wrote.

If organizers and the administration are unable to come to an agreement on establishing a union, the HGSU-UAW will file a petition with the NLRB to verify its authorization card numbers and schedule an election, according to the organization’s online roadmap.

“We’re hoping that Harvard will read and understand the decision that the National Labor Relations Board made, and recognize that they can both support us as students and as workers. And the way to support us as workers is to allow us the opportunity to decide for ourselves if we want a union,” Nicoludis said.

In the year and a half since its founding Harvard’s graduate student unionization movement has forged a partnership with the United Auto Workers and demanded Harvard administrators remain neutral in its effort to form a union.

Last month, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 published frequently asked questions about unionization online.

—Check for more updates.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

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