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Harvard Grad Students Are Taking on the Trump Administration and Their Own School

A union formed by students who also work on campus just voted to authorize a strike even as the feds threaten to gut labor protections.

by Rachel M. Cohen
Oct 30 2019, 10:00am

Union members at Harvard. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

More than 90 percent of graduate student union members at Harvard voted to authorize a strike last week, a signal of frustration as efforts to negotiate the elite university's first collective bargaining contract with these workers drag on. While no strike date has yet been scheduled, union leaders now have the ability to call for a labor stoppage if they deem it necessary. A strike could mean students who also work as teachers and teaching assistants cancel their classes and office hours, refuse to grade papers and problem sets, and that research assistants also refrain from doing their jobs.

In other words, it would represent a public and stark demonstration of class conflict at one of the most rarefied institutions in the United States.

"Undergraduate and graduate student workers do much of the work that makes this campus run," said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a third-year law-school student and member of the union's bargaining committee. "We do the research that brings in the grants and gives them the fame and glory. We do the teaching that lets people get an education here."

Sandalow-Ash herself works as a research assistant and said she earns $12 an hour, the state’s minimum wage. It’s a wage that’s too low, she stressed, to properly tackle rising tuition and student loan debt.

Harvard's wouldn't be the first grad students to go on strike, and in fact are poised to join a growing movement of labor unrest among white-collar workers in industries like tech and journalism, and an increasing number of students at private colleges in particular. In June, University of Chicago students went on strike for three days to pressure their school to voluntarily recognize their union. In April 2018, the same month Harvard graduate students voted to form their union, hundreds of students at Columbia University went on strike over their stalled contract negotiations.

But in addition to battling their university, Harvard grad students also have the Trump administration to worry about. It's just the latest example of an increasingly class-conscious generation butting heads with a reflexively pro-business White House.

In September, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is dominated by anti-union Trump appointees, announced a new rule that would effectively strip union rights from teaching and research assistants at private universities. If it passed, the rule would likely face a court challenge. The federal labor board has said ending the employer-employee relationship would help protect the educational experience of students, and better preserve academic freedoms.

The proposed rule is open for public comment until mid-December, and Jonathan Swain, a spokesman for Harvard, said the school was reviewing it. Among other things, the NLRB stance appeared to be that graduate students at private universities shouldn't have union rights because they would be negotiating over academic matters that differ from the ones facing traditional workers.

It is true that for student workers, employment and academia sometimes overlap. In Harvard's case, graduate students are seeking the right to fight what they described as potential classroom retaliation.

"Oftentimes our work supervisors are the same people who grade us academically, which means that retaliation can take an academic form," Sandalow-Ash explained. "For instance, say that a lab researcher reports his/her principal investigator for sexual harassment on the job. That supervisor would likely be upset about this report, and might seek to retaliate against the student"—either by giving them a poor job evaluation, failing them on an exam, or kicking them out of the lab altogether.

Still, Charlotte Garden, a labor law expert at the Seattle University School of Law, said the fact that students were also bargaining over issues like dental insurance, parental leave, and non-discrimination procedures seemed to undermine the NLRB's case. These "bread-and-butter issues are core concerns for employees no matter what kind of work they do," Garden said. She suspected the NLRB would vote to undermine graduate student unions regardless of what happens at Harvard, though she also said "it is definitely possible that the Board will discuss the Harvard strike in its decision accompanying its final rulemaking."

The graduate student union and Harvard have reached some agreements so far, most recently around immigrant and international student rights. Under the proposed agreement, international student workers would be afforded paid leave to attend court hearings and work through other visa issues, and immigration attorneys would visit Harvard each semester to consult with students.

"We also got guarantees that if someone is forced to leave the country for some immigration reason, Harvard will make its best efforts to keep employing them remotely," Sandalow-Ash said.

The two sides were set to meet for more bargaining on Wednesday. The main sticking points in the negotiations have been around wages, healthcare, and protections against discrimination and sexual assault.

Swain, the Harvard spokesperson, told VICE that the University "believes that calls for a strike are unwarranted." He emphasized that the University "continues to approach these negotiations in good faith, and has offered substantive proposals on compensation and benefits, as well as other areas of concern" raised by the union.

For her part, Ege Yumusak, a Harvard graduate student in philosophy and a member of the bargaining committee, said she was motivated to join the union because she saw how the school "systematically failed" survivors of sexual assault as an undergraduate. The union wants to give its members the option to address sexual harassment grievances using independent arbitration. In that scenario, an ostensibly neutral third party holds the decision-making power, rather than Harvard Title IX coordinators (named after the law banning sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds).

"What frustrates me the most is Harvard's denial of these common sense, basic protections against harassment and discrimination," Yumusak said. "We talk a lot about gender and racial equity in academia—well, that is not only an admissions issue. We do not have much diversity because people are not supported once they’re here."

A recent survey administered by the Association of American Universities found a third of undergraduate women at Harvard reported they had experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact, a figure that is somewhat higher than average among the 21 schools surveyed nationally in both 2015 and 2019.

Harvard has resisted the demand to allow for third-party arbitration, citing concerns that giving some students an option to resolve complaints not afforded to all students would run afoul of federal Title IX regulation.

Union leaders say these fears are unfounded, and that the university should take the opportunity to negotiate a gold-standard contract or risk inviting something resembling class war on campus—especially with federal labor rules potentially changing soon.

"With a $40 billion endowment, this is the wealthiest university in the world," Yumusak said. "We can have the strongest contract, too."

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