Harvard’s graduate student union filed a grievance against the University and met with administrators earlier this month in response to Harvard’s decision to exclude 108 students in Population Health Sciences from the union’s bargaining unit.
Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers filed the grievance on Dec. 3 against the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Health. Population Health Sciences is administered by GSAS but housed for practical purposes in SPH. The University has until Jan. 6 to issue a formal response.
Union grievance officers Eric R. Cohn and Hannah J. Pinkham from HGSU-UAW’s Contract Enforcement and Education Committee presented the union’s case at a Step One grievance meeting on Dec. 16, which marks the first stage of the grievance process as laid out in the union’s contract.
The union alleges the University’s decision to exclude the students violated Articles 1, 2, 3, 18, and 31 of its contract, which define the bargaining unit and rights and protections associated with union membership.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an email Thursday that administrators were unavailable to comment on the grievance this week due to the holidays.
Union representatives said they first noticed something was amiss at the end of September. After the union ratified its first temporary contract with the University on July 1, the University became responsible for deducting dues from union members’ paychecks and sending the union a weekly list of all eligible student workers in the bargaining unit.
Dues were not deducted from students’ paychecks at the School of Public Health, however, according to union Sergeant-at-Arms Maya I. Anjur-Dietrich. In response, the union filed a formal information request on Oct. 6 to SPH Dean Michelle A. Williams, inquiring about the dues deduction.
“Is it the SPH position that there are students named on the bargaining unit list that are not ‘student workers’ (SWs)?” the request, which the union provided to The Crimson, reads. “If this is not the position of SPH, why were dues not deducted from the stipends/salaries of SWs who authorized dues deductions?”
For two months, the union received no response to its information request on the dues deduction. From September to early November, HGSU-UAW was unaware that Population Health Sciences students were being excluded from the bargaining unit, as they had been included on previous lists provided by the University, according to Anjur-Dietrich. On Nov. 12, however, the union received a list that was missing 108 Population Health Sciences students.
The union moved to file a grievance against both graduate schools in early December, and the two parties agreed to meet Dec. 16. HGSU-UAW also ramped up organizing around the grievance; it gathered data about Population Health Sciences student worker pay, circulated a petition, and hosted an information session about the grievance proceedings.
On Dec. 15, the day before the meeting, the union received the University’s response to its Oct. 6 information request.
In Harvard’s reply, which the union provided to The Crimson, Associate Director of Labor and Employee Relations Brian Magner drew a distinction between “academic effort” and labor. He wrote that the money the excluded students receive is “solely in support of their academic effort and living expenses” and “not compensation for any services provided to the University.”
Magner wrote that the University “objects to the Union’s request because it is overly broad and ambiguous.” He also noted the University’s right to “make corrections to the list as needed to align the list to the bargaining unit definition.”
HGSU-UAW Communications Committee co-chair Emily M. Wright, herself a third year graduate student in Population Health Sciences, said she was frustrated by Harvard’s slow and repetitive responses since the union raised the issue.
“It’s been a kind of revolving door of confusion, concern, and alarm from the earliest information we’ve gotten about this,” she said.
Pinkham, the union grievance officer, said there were inconsistencies with the University’s justification, arguing that Population Health Sciences students perform similar duties as other graduate students included in the bargaining unit and should therefore receive union membership status.
“It seems like kind of an absurd technicality that they’re now saying, ‘Well, because they receive credit, they’re not part of the bargaining unit,’” Pinkham said. “So to us, it feels like an attempt to start to erode our bargaining unit piece by piece.”
Pinkham, Anjur-Dietrich, and Cohn called the exclusion “arbitrary” and said they were worried this case could weaken HGSU-UAW as it enters into negotiations for a comprehensive contract in 2021.
“It sets a really dangerous precedent if the University is doing this, and this kind of setup exists in other programs,” Cohn said.
Wright said her peers are concerned about losing workload protections and access to healthcare, dental care, childcare, and emergency funds during the pandemic without union membership.
Internally, HGSU-UAW will continue to recognize Population Health Sciences students as full members of the union, Wright said.
Should the University deny the Step One grievance, the union is “fully prepared” to file a Step Two grievance with University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, according to Cohn. Garber would meet with the two parties and issue a determination on the grievance; if the University and the union cannot resolve the dispute at Step Two, the union can move to Step Three: third-party arbitration.
“Given past experiences, I don’t think we’re terribly hopeful that at this stage of the grievance process we’ll be resolving it,” Cohn said.
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