Harvard Graduate union tracker helping keeps remote students informed

Harvard Graduate Students Union is waiting for its administration's response. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

By Inyeong Kim
BU News Service

BOSTON – The Harvard Graduate Student Union has been in union negotiations for nearly six months and after shifting to remote work, organizers wanted to make sure students could still watch union progress be made, via their laptops.

The Harvard Graduate Student Union started the HGSU-UAW COVID-19 demands tracker keeps track of member’s demands during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the response from the school. The tracker visualizes 18 demands on the union’s website and is divided into four parts, including pay and funding security, access to health care, equity and fair accommodations.

Brandon Mancilla, a Harvard graduate student in the history department and a union organizer, explained the reasoning behind the tracker.

“The reason the demand tracker was made was mostly as a way to organize different demands in a visual, accessible way,”  Mancilla said. “A visual tool called Demand Tracker was just simply a way for us to put all these different things in one spot.”

The demand tracker does not simply list the demands of the union, but also reflects the needs of students and workers from the university who are not members, Mancilla said.

“These are not demands the union made up or that the registered council made up. These are things that people asked for,” he said.

Since the university shifted to remote work in March, the union has encouraged its members to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. On March 11, the union sent a letter to Harvard’s administration to make their demands, including no loss of payment for hourly workers, guaranteed full salaries, unlimited paid sick time and maintaining F-1 visa statuses.

After the union sent the letter, the administration responded on March 12 by answering questions about graduate students’ stipends, salaried workers’ payment and international students’ guidelines. The administration also encouraged any students who needed help to contact its financial aid office. 

Throughout the pandemic, the union has asked for further support from the school that had not been answered as of Saturday afternoon, according to their website. Out of the 18 demands, five were addressed by the university, six others had not yet been answered and the rest were partially addressed.

“In terms of general demand, there’s a lot of things to address, but this [demand tracker] definitely addresses the pay and funding security aspect [and] things like health care,” Mancilla said. “Other forms of equity and accommodations can only be really achieved through a contract, and those negotiations are still going on.”

The union also launched a survey link to track information about how members have been impacted on March 20. Members can submit answers anonymously. 

Max Ehrenfreund, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of the history of science, is worried about the financial and academic difficulties that graduate students face during the pandemic.

“Graduate students are very concerned about being able to support themselves and their families,” Ehrenfreund said. “For graduate students, it’s difficult either to receive a Ph.D. without having a job or being unable to complete the research.” 

The administration has been more willing to cooperate and respond to the demand since the strike began in December, Ehrenfreund said. While the clock is ticking, the administration’s response during the pandemic matters to students he said.

“The relationship between the union and the administration hasn’t been good,” Ehrenfreund said. “Harvard’s attitude has been very hostile.”

Ehrenfreund acknowledged the needs for patience and compromise while union negotiations show no end in sight.

“The demands that the union has made and is making require resources, fundings, money and time from the university. We understand that,” he said. “We understand that we’re not going to get everything that we want, and that sometimes, it will take time before our demands are met. But for those reasons, that’s why we’re organized to fight.”

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