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Student workers at Harvard University rally for a new union contract during their strike Wednesday.

Morgan Sperry/Twitter

Student workers at Harvard University went on strike for the second time in as many years Wednesday, the first day of a planned three-day work stoppage in pursuit of a new union contract.

Key issues for the United Auto Workers-affiliated union are pay, a union security clause requiring that student workers be union members and contractual protections against harassment and discrimination.

Ninety-two percent of some 2,000 union members voted to authorize the strike and were expected to participate in Wednesday’s strike, including campus picket lines. The event was timed to coincide with the upcoming parents’ weekend at Harvard.

“We have consistently been proposing creative solutions to reach a fair agreement,” Maya Anjur-Dietrich, a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics and a member of the union bargaining committee, said in a statement. “We are at the table, ready to make meaningful improvements to the lives of student workers, and we’re waiting for the administration to do the same.”

Alan M. Garber, Harvard’s provost, said in a separate statement that the university “remains committed to our student workers and to the successful conclusion of these negotiations.”

It was unclear how many undergraduate classes were affected by the strike, as some were taking midterm exams and departments had been asked to prepare contingency plans.

Harvard graduate assistants and undergraduate teachers voted to form a union in 2016, in the first such election at a private university following the National Labor Relations Board’s major decision in favor of student workers seeking to unionize at Columbia University.

Negotiations for a first contract stalled, however, prompting the union to strike for the first time in late 2019. That strike ended after 29 days without a deal, although the union and Harvard agreed to let federal mediators assist in negotiations going forward.

Then COVID-19 struck. Given all that was happening, the parties quickly inked a one-year deal that included health and safety assurances, certain protections against discrimination and harassment, and more job security for international student workers.

That deal expired in August. Student workers have been without a contract since. Negotiations have again become contentious, with the union filing two unfair labor practice claims with the NLRB alleging that Harvard had failed to bargain in good faith.

What Workers Want

On pay, the union says that Harvard’s compensation proposal fails to keep pace with the rising cost of living in the Boston area. Initially the university proposed no pay increase for the first year of the contract. Harvard recently proposed a 3.5 percent pay increase for the first year, followed by a 3.5 percent raise and a 3 percent raise in the next two years of the contract, respectively. But the union says this still amounts to a pay cut after accounting for inflation. To compensate for inflation (based on the Consumer Price Index), the union wants a 5.5 percent raise for the first year of the contract, followed by 4.25 percent and 3 percent raises, respectively.

Unlike the first contract, Harvard and the union are working toward a three-year deal this time around.

From the start, the student bargaining team has been pushing for a union shop, meaning that all workers represented in the bargaining unit must pay dues. This kind of structure is typical for graduate student unions at private institutions, and unions like it because more members equal more bargaining power and more dues. Harvard has argued against a closed shop and instead proposed that student workers be able to choose to join the union.

Cory McCartan, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics and a member of the bargaining team, said Wednesday that the union accepted an open-shop concept in its first contract, but only “in the context of one-year pandemic settlements. That was a pretty hard pill to swallow.”

Currently, the union has about 2,000 members. The bargaining unit -- those subject to the contract but not necessarily members -- is closer to 4,500 people. Most are graduate assistants.

Noting that Harvard reported a $283 million budget surplus and record endowment returns last fiscal year, McCartan said that the university is also well positioned to meet the union’s pay demand. He estimated it would cost Harvard an additional $3.5 million annually.

Contractual protections from discrimination and harassment are becoming commonplace for graduate student union contracts. At Harvard, McCartan said, negotiators have already agreed to allow students who are dissatisfied following the internal complaint process to use an independent arbitrator. But that’s only regarding complaints that do not relate to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination.

Regarding Title IX complaints, the union wants internal hearing and appeals panels to include a majority of third-party legal experts, to reduce potential conflicts of interest. This is similar to what Columbia University offered its UAW-affiliated graduate student union earlier this year. While Columbia’s union rejected the eventual agreement in a ratification vote, union members at Harvard say the fact that outside expert panels have been agreed to elsewhere means they're possible -- namely, that they don’t pose insurmountable legal and logistical challenges for institutions.

Aparna Gopalan, a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology at Harvard and a member of the bargaining committee, said, "What we have asked for is to make Title IX more neutral, which they have refused."

McCartan said Harvard this week agreed to create a legal fund for students who file Title IX complaints, so that they may be as well represented as their alleged harassers, who often hire outside counsel. The union is still negotiating as to the size of that fund, however, he said.

“Even if you get to that point where you go to the university [to report], now you have to deal with what’s actually a very complex legal process,” McCartan said of Title IX investigations. “And often what happens is the person you’re accusing will immediately lawyer up with the same law firm in downtown Boston that knows how to handle these cases. There’s a big imbalance, just in terms of access to the system, procedurally.”

In his most recent update on contract negotiations, from earlier this week, Garber, the provost, said that Harvard proposed a comprehensive plan to settle contested contract areas, including a $21 million increase to student worker compensation and benefits. Hourly pay would increase immediately to $20 for nonsalaried workers, he said, and $9.2 million would be added to benefits pool funds, such as those for dependent health premiums, childcare and emergencies, over the life of contract. The university has also proposed a preventative dental plan beginning in 2023, with 75 percent of premiums covered for salaried workers.

On discrimination and harassment, Garber confirmed that Harvard has offered arbitration for non-Title IX cases of alleged discrimination, or abusive or intimidating behavior in which the union believes bias or conflict of interest has affected the outcome of internal processes. Inclusive of Title IX cases, he said Harvard has offered optional mediation.

The union says mediation is very different from binding arbitration, and not something it's ever requested with respect to Title IX.

McCartan said the benefits increases Garber noted will make a big difference to student parents and the large share of workers who will now have dental insurance; previously, he said, many students “would go five years without going to the dentist.” 

Yet the union’s outstanding demands aren’t “unusual in the context of both the industry or the area,” among other greater Boston unions, he said. That this is the union’s second strike in two years is instead “a function of universities with unions still not adjusting to the fact of viewing student researchers and teachers as workers. They’re stuck in the student mind-set, and that’s leading to a lot of conflict.”

If Harvard can “shift its perspective,” McCartan said, “we can get agreement here in the next week.”

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