Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Harvard Cuts a Deal With Its Grad Students on Union Drive

The Ivies united to oppose union rights for graduate student workers. Now they're taking different tacks.

Harvard’s teaching and research assistants will vote next month on whether to form the Ivy League’s first formally recognized graduate student employee union.

In a precedent-setting August ruling, the National Labor Relations Board determined that graduate students at Columbia University were employees with the right to unionize, rebuffing pleas from Columbia and the rest of the Ivy League not to make schools bargain with their students.

On Tuesday, the United Auto Workers announced that it had sent the NLRB a petition from the majority of Harvard’s graduate employees seeking unionization. The UAW said it had reached a deal with the university to ensure that an election actually happens, the votes actually get counted, and a union, if it wins, actually gets the chance to negotiate a contract.

That’s not what happened most places the last time the NLRB ruled in favor of private-sector graduate student union rights. The month before the 2000 presidential election, NLRB members appointed by President Bill Clinton determined that graduate students at New York University were workers with collective bargaining rights—a ruling that organized labor hoped would spur a wave of successful union drives at private schools. Instead, George W. Bush became president, and in July 2004, his appointees overturned that precedent.

In the four years between those rulings, only NYU’s graduate student workers successfully won union recognition; the university revoked it in 2005. At Cornell University, an election was held, and the union lost. At Tufts University, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown University, graduate student workers voted but the ballots never got counted, because the universities got the NLRB to impound them pending their appeals.

For UAW, the Harvard agreement—which specifies which workers will be eligible to vote and designates Nov. 16-17 as the election dates, pending NLRB approval—offers the chance to keep history from repeating itself and to short-circuit the procedural wrangling and delays that often accompany the NLRB process.

“The workers are thrilled that they’re going to have an election quick, and then move on to the bargaining table,” said UAW regional director Julie Kushner. “Harvard made the decision not to fight through legal delays, and that’s a big part of the battle.”

The deal doesn’t bar Harvard from running an anti-union campaign, as other private employers often do. But it does offer the high-profile university a chance to limit acrimony and unfriendly scrutiny from alumni, students, the press, politicians, and the public—last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ben Stiller joined striking dining-hall workers on the picket line—without giving up the chance to urge the teachers and researchers to vote no.

What Harvard is giving up are some opportunities to stall the process or contest the legitimacy of the election, in the hope that the next president might appoint NLRB members who’d once again reverse the agency’s position or that a federal court might rule the school needn’t negotiate with graduate students.

Indeed, its calculation to give up those chances might look different if Donald Trump weren’t trailing in the polls.

While the Ivies were united in urging the NLRB not to treat Columbia graduate students as employees—its fellow Ivies, along with Stanford and MIT, filed a brief supporting its administration in February—they’ve taken different tacks since losing that argument. 

Back in June, anticipating that the NLRB would rule in favor of graduate student employees’ union rights, Cornell preemptively inked a deal with the American Federation of Teachers setting terms for an election (not yet scheduled) that included restrictions on anti-union campaigning by faculty and commitments to “treat each other with mutual respect.” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month that the agreement means “the university must actually let the graduate students who are employees make a real decision” and that so far both sides had fully complied.

By contrast, Yale University and the labor union Unite Here (disclosure: my former employer from 2006 to 2011), which has filed for union elections in nine of the Yale graduate school's departments, have squared off in 17 days of NLRB hearings in which the university challenged both the department-by-department approach and whether the Columbia precedent applies to Yale.

Columbia's own election has not been scheduled, either. This week, the regional NLRB heard arguments in a disagreement between the school and the UAW over who exactly should be eligible to vote.

In an e-mailed statement, Harvard Provost Alan Garber said the university "signed this agreement to move the process forward in a productive way." He urged Harvard's teachers and researchers to discuss the pros and cons of unionization with Harvard faculty, staff, and peers. "Students who now have the right to vote on whether to join a union, also have the responsibility to cast informed votes," he said.

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