Harvard student union votes on strike authorization amid tensions over contract negotiations

Photo courtesy of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU – UAW)

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard’s graduate student union began open voting Friday to authorize a strike while contract negotiations remain at a standstill after the union argued Harvard wasn’t offering protections on harassment and discrimination protections. 

According to an open letter sent by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU – UAW) to the university president in July, Harvard has avoided negotiations on issues including third-party representation in harassment cases, fair pay and expansive and fair healthcare.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” the letter read. “It has been a year since we started negotiating our first contract: with few agreements on the table, we have lost trust in the administration’s commitment to a fair contract.”

The union’s bargaining committee sent an email on Oct. 8 encouraging members to vote in favor of strike authorization. Voting began on Oct. 15 and will continue until Friday at 6 p.m., according to the group’s Twitter page.

Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a third-year law student, research assistant and member of the bargaining committee said the union is at a breaking point with the administration.   

“For the past year the university has been stonewalling on these key issues,” she said. “We’re at the point in negotiations where we have come to the conclusion that calling for a strike is necessary to win these core rights and protections.” 

According to Sandalow-Ash, there are about 4,500 student workers in this section of the union. In order to pass the authorization vote,  the union needs two-thirds to vote yes. 

According to the union’s Twitter account, voting stations were open throughout campus last week. Sandalow-Ash said they want as many student workers as possible can join in.

If the strike authorization vote passes, Sandalow-Ash said the bargaining committee will let the administration know that the union is willing to go on strike if necessary, hoping to prompt the university to come to the table on these issues.

“If they do, then we don’t need to strike,” Sandalow-Ash said. “If they don’t, then we’ll go on strike.”

Joe Reilly, a fifth-year doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on a dissertation completion fellowship, said it has been difficult for the union’s bargaining committee to get the administration to make time for negotiations.

“It was very hard for [the bargaining committee] to get [meetings] more than once a month or even every other month,” said Reilly, who has served as a research assistant and been involved with the union since the summer of 2016. “It’s just tough to make progress with so few sessions and with so much pushback on some aspects.”

In an emailed statement to BU News Service, a university spokesperson said the call for a strike is “unwarranted.” The statement said that Harvard and HGSU-UAW has held nearly 50 bargaining sessions since negotiations began.

“The university continues to approach these negotiations in good faith and has offered substantive proposals that address the concerns raised by HGSU-UAW throughout these negotiations,” the statement read. 

According to Sandalow-Ash, the university has been willing to come to the table on a few issues, including access to employment records and work-travel reimbursement, but they have not made progress on the issues named in the open letter.  

“We’ve reached agreement on some of the minor or peripheral issues,” Sandalow-Ash said. “These things are important, but they’re not the core issues that we’re fighting for.” 

For Reilly, a student and parent with two children, the university’s lack of parental support for graduate workers is a big sticking point. 

“The cost of daycare in Boston is exorbitant and trying to balance that with a student stipend is tough,” he said. “There are a lot of benefits that Harvard employees get that aren’t available to graduate student workers … things like subsidized childcare.”

Libby Federici, a first-year graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, doesn’t think the university has made enough of an effort to come to the table during negotiations. She voted yes on strike authorization last Wednesday. 

“For me personally, the harassment protections are huge,” Federici said. “As someone who’s a student worker here, I want to know that I’m going to be protected, and I’ve seen the ways in which … universities and big institutions, in general, can really fail students who have been victimized by people in positions of power.”

Federici is optimistic the vote will pass, but hopes for a larger turnout so that the university can’t ignore them. 

“It would mean a lot more to have a larger number so we can go to the university and say ‘Look at this huge majority of people who are part of this group … and have agreed to strike if you won’t sit down with us,” she said. “This is a numerical representation of the labor that you’re going to lose if you won’t engage in dialogue.”

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