Graduate student workers on strike at Harvard

Cambridge, Mass.

On Dec. 3, 4,000 graduate student workers went on strike at Harvard University at both the Cambridge and Boston campuses.

These members of Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers are fighting for a contract that includes better pay; comprehensive, affordable health care; improved family leave stipends; and protections against sexual and racial harassment and discrimination. 

Graduate student workers teach classes, conduct research, take care of laboratories and grade papers — all while doing their own schoolwork. Many only make the Massachusetts minimum of $12 an hour. They are unable to afford the health care that Harvard offers, particularly for family members; it costs them $4,000 a year for each child and almost $8,000 for a spouse. There are about 400 children with a parent who is an HGSU-UAW member.

Some grad workers report that they are supposed to work 15 to 20 hours a week but normally end up working 30-plus hours. In speeches and chants, HGSU-UAW points out that Harvard University has an endowment of $80 billion and should be able to pay their workers a living wage, plus provide them with affordable health care.

All the administration is offering is “funding pools” of $250,000, $75,000 and $250,000 for health insurance, dental coverage and child care. If spread among all 4,000 members of the bargaining unit, the funds would only shave off a fraction of real medical costs — $19 to defray dental expenses, for example.

Graduate students also want an increase in paid family/medical leave benefits. Currently the university only allows 12 weeks of leave with a stipend of $6,646 (a paltry $554 a week) for having a child.

Sexual harassment, a huge issue

HGSU-UAW is demanding an independent investigation process to address sexual harassment and discrimination cases. The union made this issue a major focus after a former professor had 18 separate complaints against him in the spring of 2018.

Justin Bloesch, a HGSU-UAW member, said this is important “because often our advisers and supervisors hold the keys to our entire careers. A single [bad] letter of recommendation or any sort of disciplining can totally end someone’s academic career.” Relying on an internal process “where someone who’s a Harvard employee makes a final decision,” he continued, is not enough when the stakes are so high. (Harvard Magazine, Nov. 12)

“They want to preserve absolute power over determining who is a harasser, who has committed discrimination. … The fox is guarding the henhouse. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” added Bargaining Committee member Ege Yumusuk. If won, the independent grievance procedure would also benefit victims of other types of biased treatment, such as racist and pregnancy-related discrimination.

University spokesperson Jonathan Swain argued: “The University has proposed significant opportunities for HGSU-UAW members to have an ongoing role in making recommendations on how to strengthen policies and processes aimed at preventing and addressing harassment and discrimination.” 

That is typical management doublespeak.

What the student workers are demanding is not exceptional. They are only asking for the same independent grievance-handling language that other Harvard unions have in their contracts and other universities have for graduate student workers.

Intransigence by the administration on these key issues has surprised some graduate students and angered many more. Pro-union sentiment has risen since the spring of 2018 when the union won a close election with just 56 percent voting in favor of UAW representation.

The union picked an optimum time to launch a strike: final exam period. Because many of the grad student workers teach classes, exams might not get administered or graded, and grades for the semester may have to be held. 

As Bloesch says, “Really, the power that we have is in the ability to strike.”

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