By Camille G. Caldera

Eight Bargaining Sessions In, How Do Harvard Grad Students Union’s Proposals Stack Up to Other Unions’ Contracts?

Less than a year ago, Harvard’s graduate student union ratified its first contract with the University, ending 19 months of negotiations. Now, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers is back at the bargaining table negotiating for its second contract.
By Cara J. Chang and Meimei Xu

Less than a year ago, Harvard’s graduate student union ratified its first contract with the University, ending 19 months of negotiations. Now, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers is back at the bargaining table negotiating for its second contract.

Eight sessions in, a number of key contentions that dominated the previous contract negotiations have returned to the forefront: increased compensation and health care benefits, stronger non-discrimination procedures, international student worker protections, and agency shop – the requirement that all student workers pay the union for representation.

Thus far, HGSU-UAW has proposed changes to more than half of the articles in its current contract, which is set to expire on June 30.

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, who oversees the negotiations from the University's side, wrote in an update to Harvard affiliates on Friday that the current contract addresses much of the union’s concerns.

“In June 2020, the University and HGSU-UAW agreed to their first-ever contract,” Garber wrote. “This contract is comprehensive and thoughtfully addresses many of the labor concerns of our student workers, while also ensuring the core academic and research values are maintained.”

As bargaining heats up, especially on the longtime points of contention, HGSU-UAW members have pointed to other Harvard unions and graduate student unions at peer institutions that have already won or are pushing for similar provisions.

The Crimson compared HGSU-UAW’s latest contract proposals to its inaugural contract, other Harvard unions’ contracts, and recent agreements and proposals from graduate student unions at other private universities. We examined the contracts of four graduate student unions that have been at the forefront of organizing and conducted bargaining during the pandemic: the unions at New York University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, and Brown University.

In 2001, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee-United Automobile Workers was the first graduate student union at a private university to secure a contract. After going on strike for three weeks, union members are voting this week on whether to ratify their third contract.

The Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Automobile Workers, Columbia’s student union, also went on strike this spring. While GWC-UAW secured its first tentative agreement just after the strike, membership rejected the tentative agreement and the union is electing a new bargaining committee next month.

And just months before HGSU-UAW secured its contract last year, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees and the Graduate Labor Organization at Brown both ratified their first-ever contracts last spring.


Compensation — in the form of yearly salaries and hourly rates, depending on position — makes reappearances at nearly every bargaining table. HGSU-UAW is currently proposing an immediate 9.74 percent increase for all salaried workers, with 3 percent increases every following year. The current contract stipulates a 2.8 percent annual raise for salaried workers except those in the Extension School, who will not receive a raise, and those in the School of Public Health, who will receive a set raise of $198.

For all workers with hourly wages, the union is proposing a minimum rate of $23 an hour, an increase from the current minimum of $16 an hour for research employees and $17 an hour for instructional employees.

To arrive at these numbers, HGSU-UAW Bargaining Committee compared compensation for graduate student unions across different universities, public and private, and used the MIT living wage calculator to adjust for the local cost of living, according to Bargaining Committee member Cory W. McCartan, a Statistics Ph.D. candidate.

In comparison, Brown’s current agreement with GLO — which does not apply to any hourly workers — stipulates a 2.5 percent stipend raise for the first year. GLO and Brown met again early this year to renegotiate next year’s stipends, and the union won parity for its members in the Humanities and Social Sciences with those in the Sciences. Humanities and Social Sciences workers will receive a total 10.59 percent increase over 12 months to match their Sciences colleagues, who received a 4.59 percent raise.

In the first year under GAGE’s contract with Georgetown, student workers in 12-month positions are set to receive a raise from $31,000 to $35,500 and those in academic year positions will jump from $29,000 to $32,500. Master’s research and teaching assistants will be granted a minimum hourly wage raise from $13.50 to $19.50 this year. All categories of workers will receive a minimum 2 percent annual raise for the remaining two years of the contract.

NYU GSOC-UAW’s tentative agreement secures annual increases of 2.75 to 3 percent for salaried Ph.D. students and an increase in minimum hourly rate from $20 to $26 with back-dated pay beginning fall 2020. By the last year of the contract, the minimum hourly rate would be $30.

In the tentative agreement with Columbia, which was ultimately rejected by membership last month, GWC-UAW won percentage yearly increases for salaried workers and an increase in the minimum rate for hourly workers from $15 in the first year to $20 by the third year of the contract.

Health Care

In its second contract negotiations with Harvard, the union has presented health care proposals which it estimates will cost an additional $14 million — approximately 8 percent of what it says the University currently pays in salaries and benefits for in-unit student workers. HGSU-UAW is proposing Harvard provide full health coverage for individuals and dependents, as well as dental insurance, to everyone except student workers working less than 100 hours in six months, who would pay part of their premium costs.

The University requires students to be covered by the Student Health Insurance Plan or comparable health insurance. Under the current contract, Harvard only provides no-premium individual health care for Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. candidates and has a $125,000 Health Care Reimbursement Fund for student workers on SHIP. Student workers can apply to the fund to reimburse copays for prescription drugs, mental health and specialist visits, and out-of-pocket expenses as a result of exceeding the limit on mental health and specialist visits.

To help defray premiums and expenses for child care and dependents’ health care, Harvard agreed in the first contract to establish two funds. Salaried student workers can apply to the $325,000 Dependent Insurance Fund to help cover premiums for spouses and dependents and the $350,000 Childcare Fund to reimburse child care expenses. HGSU-UAW is now proposing a $8,000 child care subsidy per year instead of the current reimbursement model.

“We believe that this is an important step toward equity because it reduces the administrative burden of processing requests, and ensures equity in access and distribution,” Victoria ‘Vicki’ Dzindzichashvili, a HGSU-UAW Bargaining Committee member and Kennedy School student, wrote in a bargaining update in late April.

The union is also proposing an expansion of the definition of “dependent” to include “qualified adults,” which would cover partners who are not married.

HGSU-UAW and University negotiators have thus far met for eight bargaining sessions to discuss their second contract.
HGSU-UAW and University negotiators have thus far met for eight bargaining sessions to discuss their second contract. By Justin Y. Ye

HGSU-UAW Bargaining Committee member Ash E. Tomaszewski — a Law School student — previously studied at the University of Michigan, which provided a free dental plan and covered 93 percent of individual health care premiums under the contract with its graduate employee union, Graduate Employees’ Organization. When Tomaszewski came to Harvard a year ago, they said they lost their dental coverage and faced increased premiums for health care coverage.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that you can work your entire life, you can dream of going to Harvard, and you get in, and your quality of living goes down,” Tomaszewski said.

Compared to Harvard’s current contract, private university student unions with recent negotiation wins have had mixed results in terms of health care benefits. Brown already covers premiums for individual health insurance and offers discounts for some dental and vision services for graduate student workers under its health plan. Under GLO and Brown’s contract, the university will set up a health reimbursement account; if the university fails to do so, student workers will receive $500 in fiscal year 2021 and $600 in fiscal year 2022. For dependents, Brown does provide a 75 percent subsidy on health insurance and dental insurance for all dependents and a $5,000 child care subsidy for dependent children. Georgetown covers individual health and dental premium costs for Ph.D. candidates under GAGE’s current contract, but not for Master’s candidates, and both still need to pay for dependent and vision care.

NYU GSOC-UAW’s new tentative agreement, on the other hand, includes sweeping increases in benefits: increasing individual premium coverage from 90 to 95 percent, establishing a new $300,000 fund for out-of-pocket expenses that will expand to $700,000 during the life of the contract, increasing a subsidy for dependent premiums and extending it to Master’s degree candidates, and scaling up a fund for child care expenses. Similarly, in the rejected GWC-UAW tentative agreement, Columbia’s graduate student union won fully-subsidized individual and dependent premiums for Ph.D. candidates at all schools and doubled its child care subsidy to $4,000.


The first contract between HGSU-UAW and Harvard establishes a three-step grievance procedure culminating in neutral third-party arbitration if the two sides cannot resolve complaints. However, identity-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and academic retaliation complaints are not able to be pursued under the grievance procedure; instead, they are processed through the University’s or individual schools’ policies.

HGSU-UAW has long pushed for discrimination and harassment complaints to be grievable under the contract procedure, including the possibility of neutral third-party arbitration. Under the current model, the union alleges, Harvard has failed to redress, or even acknowledge, some complaints when students accused faculty and staff.

Harvard has staunchly opposed allowing union members to pursue such complaints under a grievance procedure, arguing that consistent procedures must be applied University-wide.

In its second contract, the union wants the option of third-party arbitration extended to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation complaints, which it argues is necessary to protect students who come forward and offer them an external process. HGSU-UAW has also proposed an expansion of the classifications protected by the non-discrimination article, including medical conditions, gender expression, and accents.

While those types of complaints are not currently pursuable under the grievance procedure, the first contract includes a side letter that establishes union representation in non-discrimination and harassment working groups. HGSU-UAW now appoints two of the four student representatives serving on Harvard’s existing Title IX Policy Review Advisory Committee, which recommends changes to the University’s policies on sexual and gender-based harassment.

The first contract also created two new working groups to address other forms of discrimination: the Non-discrimination Policy Working Group and the Anti-bullying Policy Working Group. HGSU-UAW appoints two student workers to each of the committees. While the working groups have no set deadline in the contract to issue recommendations, “the parties agree that any such recommendations regarding policies and procedures will include, at a minimum, a final appeals panel of impartial and unbiased members.”

HGSU-UAW feels that the working groups alone are insufficient.

“While we want the working groups’ recommendations to be incorporated into Harvard’s policies, we also believe it is urgent that we have stronger protections in the contract currently being negotiated,” Dzindzichashvili wrote in the late April update to union members.

McCartan added in an emailed statement that the working groups’ recommendations are not binding; graduate students, he wrote, need “fairer, speedier, and safer options.”

“The working groups are an important part of our broad effort to fix systemic issues of harassment and discrimination at Harvard,” he wrote. “They provide a path to improve internal university processes, which will still be around whether we secure third-party arbitration or not. However, they are only empowered to make recommendations on a narrow set of issues, which the University is under no obligation to implement.”

Elsewhere at Harvard, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers does have the option of third-party arbitration for sexual harassment complaints. Beyond Cambridge, other graduate student unions have had mixed degrees of success securing the right to pursue discrimination and harassment complaints under grievance procedures. GSOC-UAW at NYU has third-party arbitration for all such complaints. Meanwhile, student workers at Columbia and Brown must submit complaints through internal university procedures before they can appeal decisions to a third-party panel. Like HGSU-UAW, GAGE at Georgetown has no third-party recourse for discrimination and harassment complaints.

International Student Worker Protections

The pandemic pushed HGSU-UAW to call for greater protections and resources for international student workers.

The current contract includes six provisions for international student workers. If an international student already employed by Harvard finds themselves stuck abroad, they will continue to be employed by the University; if a student already employed is suddenly unable to work as a result of their immigration status, the University will “make reasonable efforts to re-employ the [student worker] as soon as possible.” Harvard also grants international student workers five days of paid leave to attend visa and immigration proceedings for themselves and family members, and maintains a list of immigration attorneys. The first contract also created a University-wide working group to evaluate Harvard’s English language resources.

HGSU-UAW is advocating for greater rights for international student workers during negotiations with the University.
HGSU-UAW is advocating for greater rights for international student workers during negotiations with the University. By Yuen Ting Chow

Other graduate student unions’ contracts, much like HGSU-UAW’s current one, contain provisions to maintain employment if an international student worker is stuck outside the U.S. and commit to supporting union members through immigration proceedings.

NYU GSOC-UAW’s tentative agreement also includes a new side letter for international and immigrant student worker protections. If ratified, NYU will not provide information to government agencies for the purpose of detention or deportation based on immigration status, nor will it let “representatives of any governmental agency” enter school buildings for those reasons, including police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In its current negotiations, HGSU-UAW is asking Harvard for additional support for international students: the union wants to expand the release time clause — periods that employees may use for work-related commitments outside of their typical duties — so that student workers have greater flexibility in case of immigration issues. In addition, instead of providing the list of attorneys, the union is proposing Harvard establish free legal advising for immigration issues.

Union Security

Of Harvard’s 10 unions, HGSU-UAW is the only union with an open shop, meaning that HGSU-UAW represents students in its unit regardless of whether they pay dues. Under an open shop, membership in the union during employment is optional and students in the bargaining unit who choose not to join the union are not required to pay fees for representation.

HGSU-UAW is the only union at Harvard with an open shop, meaning it does not exact fees from all the students in its bargaining unit.
HGSU-UAW is the only union at Harvard with an open shop, meaning it does not exact fees from all the students in its bargaining unit. By Yuen Ting Chow

Under an agency shop model, however, all members of the bargaining unit are required to pay the union for representation.

“[Agency shop] would make the union financially in a much better position,” said HGSU-UAW steward Sebastian B. Spitz. “This is a very normal thing — that if you’re represented by a union, you pay dues to the union.”

HGSU-UAW proposed an agency shop at its second bargaining session this year to “share the cost of representation across the unit.” The union has not received the University’s counter-proposal.

Although Harvard is one of eight graduate student unions at a private university to have secured a contract, it is the only such union to have an open shop: NYU, the New School, Georgetown, Brown, Brandeis University, Tufts University, and American University all have unions with agency shop. Columbia's union also secured an agency shop in its first tentative agreement.

CORRECTION: May 27, 2021

A previous version of this article stated that Brown does not cover premiums for individual health insurance. In fact, Brown already covers premiums for individual health insurance and offers discounts for some dental and vision services for graduate student workers under its health plan.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.

LaborUniversityUniversity NewsHGSUCommencement 2021