Harvard’s Graduate Students Union Versus the Trappings of Success

2016 was a banner year for graduate student organizing on university campuses. In August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student workers had the right to organize and bargain collectively as university employees, reversing a 2004 decision by a more conservative board. Unionization drives kicked into high gear, as fledgling unions pushed for quick elections, from Yale to Duke to the New School and beyond. In November, with momentum on a crescendo, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) held its authorization vote, and was rejected at the ballot box by a slim vote for “no.”

It’s not quite fair to say that the union was rejected; its case remains mired in NLRB hearings over a procedural brouhaha. Questions as to who was in fact eligible for its bargaining unit leave enough votes in limbo that the union might still emerge victorious. Still, HGSU would need to win a much higher portion of the uncounted votes than they won of those already counted to have a hope of winning their election—barring a petitioned-for re-election, their prospects look grim. Why, amid widespread momentum for such unions, on the heels of a successful and well publicized strike by Harvard’s dining services workers, after more than half of the students in the potential bargaining unit initially signed cards in support, might HGSU have failed?

“There was a lot of misinformation that got thrown around those last couple of weeks,” says HGSU organizer Abhinav Reddy, a Masters student in computational biology and quantitative genetics. “A lot of it was trying to bring up uncertainty and fear—in a process that’s normal and healthy and part of so many American people’s lives.”

Such tactics are common among anti-unionists across campuses: administrations regularly argue against hurting the student-university relationship in similar terms. Harvard, though, was notable for the volume of anti-union rhetoric among its graduate students. A week before the election, a group of opposed students dashed off an email to the graduate student body accentuating the uncertainty that would come with a union. Its points included: “the union will be disruptive to your academic experience”; “the only weapon that the union has—a strike—will not be effective”; “we cannot expect to put our faith in a one-size-fits-all contract that has yet to be written”; and “unionization is likely irreversible.” Meanwhile, the letter decried high salaries for United Auto Workers (UAW) employees, which come from union dues, and highlighted UAW’s “controversial politicking,” including protectionism for American cars from international competition and support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement by the UC Berkeley and NYU chapters of UAW. The HGSU is proposing to organize as a chapter of the UAW.

In the lead-up to the election, Jae Hyeon Lee, a third-year physics Ph.D. student and signatory of the “just-say-no” email, penned an Op-Ed in the Harvard Crimson against the union. He initially supported the union, even doing some organizing work for it, but became disenchanted with what he saw as extreme rhetoric and a lack of clearheaded thinking. “My sense is that most students don’t really understand what a union does and what it means to be in a union, that most students probably voted based on their gut reaction,” Lee tells me. “When things are generally vague, people resort to populist rhetoric and demonizing the university.”

But Reddy found such logic, from the students and from the university, flabbergasting. “What baffled me the most was that these are scientists saying this! And in science, we always like to use empiricism,” Reddy says. “Unionization of graduate employees is not a new thing. Harvard tried to say this is a new bargaining unit, when in fact the University of Washington has an identical bargaining unit. There are over sixty public universities that have unionized, some of whom have been here for years. We can look to evidence from there to see whether graduate students will make less. No! In no union contract have we seen graduate students making less money because they have to pay union dues. So when Harvard sends an email to students saying that they could make less money, that in some ways flies in the face of the same type of scientific reasoning that they want us to foster in our own work.”

The point on graduate unions at public schools is well taken. Graduate students have indeed organized at public schools for decades—the constant argument from private universities that their graduate student employees are not workers but something distinct elides this pre-existing contrary evidence. Marc Bousquet, a film studies professor at Emory who writes on the subject, believes that public school organizing flies under the radar. “The focus on Ivy League unionization pulls focus away from the largest aspect of graduate student unionization, which is public schools,” Bousquet tells me. Private graduate unions need not reinvent the wheel; there is a blueprint for what they hope to achieve.

Even so, Harvard is the world’s dream school; it has the public’s attention. It has, too, a buttoned-down culture of success, wherein high achievers pour on extra helpings of elbow grease. Harvard’s graduate union may have run up against the time-honored practice of keeping one’s nose to the academic grindstone. I ask Lee about the anti-unionists’ point that strikes would not be effective. He elaborates, “most students wouldn’t be willing to strike, because going on strike could potentially mean not getting paid, losing their benefits, not getting their research done, affecting their teaching, probably affecting their reference letters in the future. There are so many cons to going on strike… I think there is too little empirical evidence to judge to what extent a union could alter the academic relationship.”

There is indeed some evidence; still, anything bucking the status quo understandably is met with students’ side-eyes. Harvard students who do their research, teach their classes, publish their papers, and get their recs are about as likely to do O.K. in this Brave New Economy as anyone can be.

Bousquet sees this as one reason that the academy is at times unreceptive to labor organizing. “Grad student organizers face the problem of overcoming their own identities as academic élites, and embracing a more egalitarian and truly democratic process. Many people choose the academy because they prefer a life insulated from the kind of concerns a union deals with,” Bousquet says. “What motivates many of the most privileged people to organize in an academic workplace is the sense of threat to their privilege, or their expected privilege.” In an increasingly precarious academic workforce, where plum tenure-track professorships wither by the year while contingent work abounds, that threat is increasingly felt throughout the ranks of academia; organizing consequently continues apace. At Harvard, the threat may simply be less acute than elsewhere. Yet more than half of Crimson graduate students in the potential bargaining unit did sign “yes-please” on their union cards to start the process rolling. The tide of academic dread rises on.


Samuel Feldblum

SAMUEL FELDBLUM is an armchair philosopher pondering getting out of his armchair.