Harvard’s graduate student union is set to go on strike at 10 a.m. Tuesday after its negotiating committee and Harvard failed to come to any new agreements during a bargaining session Monday morning.
Striking members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers – which represents roughly 5,000 student workers across campus – will halt their teaching responsibilities and forgo paid research work not related to their academic programs starting Tuesday. The strike is expected to last indefinitely.
Union members and supporters will form picket lines in front of Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard, the home of the University’s central administration, Tuesday morning. Picket lines are expected to commence at Harvard’s Longwood campus starting Wednesday. HGSU plans to continue their pickets for the rest of the week from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m in Cambridge and from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Longwood each day.
HGSU announced their Dec. 3 strike deadline last month, after voting members overwhelmingly approved strike authorization in a vote in late October. The union and the University have met in 28 bargaining sessions since October 2018. The two sides have reached tentative agreements on 12 provisions, but remain deadlocked on key issues such as compensation, health care benefits, and sexual harassment and discrimination grievance procedures.
During Monday’s bargaining session — which was added to the calendar last week — the two sides exchanged several proposals, including new counter-proposals from the union on compensation and benefits, according to University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain.
Swain wrote in an emailed statement that the University still believes that a strike is “unwarranted.”
“Student workers have [a] vital role in fulfilling Harvard's teaching and research mission, and with that in mind, the University is committed to addressing concerns that have been raised throughout this process,” Swain wrote. “A strike will neither clarify our respective positions nor will it resolve areas of disagreement.”
The union made substantial changes to its compensation and benefits proposals Tuesday, according to an update posted to the union’s website, but noted that their current proposal must be accepted in its entirety without revisions or it will revert to its original asks.
HGSU is now asking for a 5 percent wage increase this year and 3.5 percent in each subsequent year of the contract. The union had previously requested a 4.25 percent annual wage increase for salaried research assistants and hourly workers, and a 5 percent annual increase for salaried teaching staff.
Union negotiators also reduced their ask on minimum wage to $25 per hour or 5 percent above the current rate for all workers, a decrease from their previous call for $28 to $34 per hour depending on their academic discipline.
The union also altered its proposal on dental coverage and healthcare coverage for members' adult dependents. The new proposals asks for 90 percent premium coverage on dental care and 65 percent on healthcare for adult dependents; the previous proposal called for complete coverage in both areas. HGSU also withdrew proposals for retirement and professional development benefits.
In addition to the scope of coverage, HGSU also changed its proposed threshold for members to be eligible for benefits. Previously, hourly workers who work roughly seven hours per week would receive health benefits, but the new threshold is set at “an average of 17.5 hours/week” in a semester.
“The University is reviewing [HGSU]-UAW's most recent counter proposal on compensation and benefits,” Swain wrote.
He added that there are currently no additional bargaining sessions set.
Since the announcement of the strike authorization vote, University administrators have urged faculty to prepare for the possibility of a strike. Swain wrote that the university has developed contingency plans to ensure “as little disruption as possible” to exams and coursework. Guidance issued by the University has noted that striking student workers may not be paid.
In the event of a strike, student teaching staff could choose to halt their paid instructional work, including holding sections and office hours and grading assignments and exams. Graduate research assistants on strike would withhold 20 hours of their paid research work not related to their academic program.
HGSU has distributed picket sign-up forms in email updates to their members and urged striking members to spend at least 10 hours each week on the picket line. The union will also offer strike benefits if it lasts more than seven days and has set up a hardship fund to assist striking student workers impacted by the loss of pay.
Ahead of the strike, HGSU has also picked up influential allies, including political leaders, alumni, and other campus unions. All eleven members of Massachusetts’ Congressional delegation sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow last month encouraging the University to “ensure fair treatment and strong workplace protections” for student workers. Forty-five alumni from the Class of 1969 also sent a letter supporting the union to top administrators.
Senator and Democratic Presidential Primary Candidate Bernie Sanders (D-V.T.) announced his support for HGSU members in a press release Monday.
“I stand in solidarity with the student workers at Harvard. All workers deserve respect, dignity, a living wage, access to adequate health care, and protection against harassment and discrimination,” Sanders said. “I urge the administration to bargain in good faith for a fair contract.”
Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, Harvard’s largest union, encouraged its members to support HGSU in a Nov. 27 email to its members. Though HUCTW workers must continue all of their regular responsibilities, they have been instructed to decline to do work that would “normally be done” by student workers.
“We encourage you to respectfully decline these types of requests, letting managers and faculty know that you do not feel comfortable doing the jobs of striking HGSU-UAW workers,” the email reads.
Roxana Rivera, vice president of custodial and security union 32BJ SEIU, wrote in an emailed statement that her union “stands with” student workers and that it is “unacceptable” that a contract has not yet been reached.
“As the richest University in the country, Harvard can afford to provide good jobs to all of its workers—jobs that take into account the skyrocketing cost-of-living in Boston and the specific concerns and needs of its employees,” Rivera wrote.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
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