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Harvard graduate students vote to form a union

Teaching and research assistants at Harvard University have voted to unionize. (Steven Senne/AP)

Teaching and research assistants at Harvard University have voted to join the United Auto Workers in a union election that caps a contentious fight over graduate students gaining a seat at the bargaining table.

The National Labor Relations Board tallied the vote — 1,931 to 1,523 — Friday following a two-day election on campus. More than 5,000 students were eligible to vote, and more than two-thirds cast ballots.

Are they students? Or are they employees? NLRB rules that graduate students are employees.

“We’re super pumped to be able to work on the issues that matter,” said Marena Lin, a research assistant and an organizer with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW. “What this means is students no longer have to feel alone when they face an issue.”

This marks the second time in less than a year that graduate students at Harvard have gone to the polls. Attorneys for the student organizers challenged a previous election held in November 2016 on the grounds that scores of graduate students were incorrectly deemed ineligible to vote. The labor board sided with the students in July 2017, but Harvard appealed. The labor board rejected Harvard’s appeal in December and a month later mandated a second election.

“Harvard appreciates student engagement on this important issue,” Anna Cowenhoven, a university spokeswoman, said in an email. “Regardless of the outcome, this election underscores the importance of the university’s commitment to continuing to improve the experience of our students.”

Yale graduate students look to unionize after labor board ruling

The National Labor Relations Board in 2016 granted teaching and research assistants legal protection to unionize. Harvard was among many private universities to argue that recognizing students as employees would undermine the foundation of their education. Before that ruling, Harvard joined Stanford University, the Massachusetts of Institute of Technology and the rest of the Ivy League in fighting efforts to unionize. In a legal brief, the schools argued that involving students in the bargaining process would disrupt operations because negotiations could include such core matters as class length, amount of grading or what is included in curriculum.

Doctoral programs often require students to teach or conduct research before earning their degrees, and as a result, universities argue they have an educational, not economic, relationship with those students. But the rights of graduate students have been debated as more universities rely on low-paid adjuncts and doctoral students, rather than full-time professors, to teach — a model criticized as exploitative.

Since the NLRB ruling, teaching and research assistants at 16 private universities have filed petitions or participated in elections to form unions, according to Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

Georgetown University agrees to allow graduate students to vote on unionizing

For Harvard graduate workers, the next step is for the labor board to certify their newly minted union. Once that is completed, organizers said, they hope the university will negotiate a contract. Lin, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said students are seeking improvements in mental-health care and formal grievance procedures.

Harvard officials have not said whether the school will pursue further legal challenges.

Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, praised the work of the graduate student organizers after years of fighting to have their voices heard.

“They overcame obstacle after obstacle to win a union for themselves and their peers,” she said. “Today’s victory is a crucial moment in the growing student worker movement — it signals that the appointment of an anti-union NLRB will not stop the thousands who are fighting for their unions.”