Harvard University agreed Tuesday to negotiate its first contract with teaching and research assistants, a victory for graduate students who have fought for years to gain a seat at the bargaining table.
The decision comes more than a week after graduate students voted — 1,931 to 1,523 — to join the United Auto Workers. The National Labor Relations Board certified those election results on Monday, after the deadline to file objections passed Friday.
“In light of the outcome of the vote and the existing NLRB precedent, Harvard is prepared to begin good-faith negotiations, guided by our fundamental commitments as an academic institution,” Provost Alan Garber said in a letter to the university community on Tuesday. “Harvard aspires to the highest ideals in education and scholarship, and the contributions of our students are essential to this endeavor.”
By choosing to work with students, Harvard is breaking ranks with other prestigious universities that have refused to negotiate or, in some instances, even to recognize graduate student unions.
Columbia University graduate students staged a walkout last week after more than a year of pleading with administrators to negotiate a contract. Graduate students at Boston College, the University of Chicago and Yale University have withdrawn petitions with the labor board to seek voluntary recognition from their schools. But administrators at all three schools have fought graduate unions on the grounds that students are not employees.
Harvard also held fast to that argument when the NLRB in 2016 granted teaching and research assistants legal protection to unionize. Before that ruling, Harvard joined Stanford University, MIT and the rest of the Ivy League in fighting student 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, the amount of grading, or what is included in the curriculum.
Graduate workers at Harvard forged ahead with their union campaign, which had its share of hiccups. Last month’s vote marked the second time in less than a year that graduate students at Harvard headed to the polls.
Attorneys for the student organizers challenged an 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.
“We applaud Harvard for doing the right thing,” said Justin Bloesch, a doctoral candidate in Economics. “We look forward to negotiating with them in good faith – and making progress on issues like sexual harassment and assault, improved conditions for international workers, predictable workloads, compensation and more.”
In his letter, Garber stressed that he still believes that the relationship between students and a university is, above all else, an academic one. That perspective, he said, will guide the university’s approach in negotiating a contract with graduate workers. Garber said Harvard will not negotiate with the union about academic matters, such as who is admitted or who teaches.
“Students are at the heart of Harvard’s learning, teaching, and scholarship. All should benefit from the academic opportunities that make Harvard the extraordinary institution it is,” Garber said. “The University will seek in every instance to preserve those opportunities and to strive for a student experience that is unsurpassed today and in the years to come.”
There has been a divide among universities in how to engage graduate unions. While some schools have vehemently opposed student bargaining, others such as Brandeis, Tufts University and American University have let the process proceed with little objection. Georgetown University initially refused to entertain the idea of a graduate-student union but ultimately agreed to workers holding a vote.
“Harvard is taking the high road, and we look forward to engaging in a productive dialogue with them,” Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A. “Unlike some universities that have chosen to delay bargaining with years of expensive and pointless litigation, Harvard is respecting the democratic and legal rights of its graduate workers.”