CAMBRIDGE, MA — Student workers at Harvard University made history today, voting in favor of ratifying their first union contract. The one-year contract agreement with the university will improve pay and benefits for over 4,000 student workers, and guarantee health and safety protections in the midst of a pandemic. The contract strengthens protections for student workers against discrimination and harassment, including racial discrimination and sexual harassment, and includes new provisions aimed at increasing job security for international student workers.
The contract is a major victory not only for the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW), which is the largest private-sector student worker union in the country, but also for the growing graduate student worker movement across the country. HGSU-UAW’s victory is particularly powerful in the midst of the Trump administration’s efforts to end the right of student workers to bargain under federal law. The contract was ratified overwhelmingly by 96.9% of those who voted and a majority of the bargaining unit participated in the ratification vote.
“Student workers at Harvard make this university run by teaching courses and conducting cutting-edge research,” said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “It is about time that we have a union contract that ensures we can do that work in a safe environment. HGSU-UAW and our first contract make Harvard a better university.”
Since winning their union over two years ago, student workers at Harvard have applied consistent pressure on Harvard administrators to reach a deal that would guarantee basic workplace rights and protections. The student workers’ years-long fight included holding protests, rallies, petitions and sit-ins, occupying administrative buildings, and organizing a month-long strike in the midst of last December’s finals.
During the pandemic, HGSU-UAW has also been supporting and taking part in solidarity efforts to uplift other workers across campus who have faced uncertainties in recent weeks. They have delivered masks to custodial staff and ran mutual aid efforts helping hundreds of community members. Like so many other workers on campus and across the country, the lives and work of teaching and research assistants at Harvard have been upended in many ways by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic’s consequences have increased the urgency for guarantees in a union contract including: health and safety protections as on-campus work resumes, protections for international student workers, support for child care as parents try to juggle work and home life, paid sick leave and family medical leave as student workers take care of loved ones, and support for the rising cost of health care. Student workers across Harvard’s schools organized for stable pay and benefits and have called on the university to provide certainty around their working conditions.
The contract between Harvard and the student workers will provide important measures to create much-needed stability and certainty for Harvard’s student workers in the upcoming year, when many student workers across the country are worried about continued support and funding from their university employers, including:
Compensation. The contract agreement guarantees pay raises for most student workers. As the Administration considers hiring freezes and reduced enrollment, HGSU-UAW achieved a 2.8% raise for salaried workers and substantial increases for the lowest-paid hourly workers. Hourly workers currently earning the Massachusetts minimum wage will receive a 25% pay increase.
“Having predictable pay helps student workers plan for our futures and dedicate more time and focus to our work. That will be particularly helpful over the next year as the nature of research and teaching positions has changed. Our community is unlikely to return to normal in the near future, but I’m glad to not have to worry about pay cuts at the same time,” said Cherrie Bucknor, a teaching fellow and research assistant in Sociology and a member of the bargaining committee.
Child Care. For the first time ever, student workers will have access to child care subsidies. HGSU-UAW won a $350,000 fund to help offset the cost of childcare for student worker parents. The contract also protects the Parental Accommodation and Financial Support program, a program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) for parents whether the student worker takes a leave or not. The child care fund is a significant improvement to the university’s current policies, which had zero support for student worker parents outside of GSAS.
“Too many capable scholars are forced to choose between pursuing their academic careers and being a parent because the cost of childcare is prohibitive. For instance, in December, the cost of childcare was 70% of what I make as a teaching fellow,” said Carleigh Beriont, a fifth-year PhD student worker parent in Religion. “I’m hopeful that this new fund in our contract will help ease the burden on student worker parents.”
Health Care and Benefits. The contract establishes nearly $600,000 in health care funds to help offset student workers’ and their dependents’ premiums and co-pays for health, dental, mental health and specialist doctor visits. The inclusion of this benefit in the agreement will allow HGSU-UAW to grow these funds in future contracts while also advocating for important changes to the plan’s benefit structure.
“For student workers with chronic illness, Harvard’s limit of six specialty visits per year is completely inadequate,” said Lee Kennedy-Shaffer, a member of the bargaining committee and May graduate from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “The richest university in the world should offer all of its employees the health care they need—period. This contract agreement is a step toward that goal.”
Non-discrimination. The contract establishes provisions that will help protect student workers from harassment and discrimination, including power-based harassment from supervisors. At a time when Betsy Devos and the Department of Education are rolling back Title IX protections, HGSU-UAW won the right for guaranteed interim measures for all forms of discrimination and harassment that ensure a safe workplace while complaints are investigated. The contract also guarantees that student workers who come into the Title IX office to make a complaint will be given a letter outlining their right to union representation, providing a crucial support system for navigating a difficult process. The union’s involvement ensures an entity other than Harvard itself can track these cases and patterns, and take action if the system fails survivors.
“Union representation for student workers with discrimination and harassment complaints is incredibly important because there is no transparency or accountability in the university’s internal process,” said Clare Canavan, a rising third-year student in the Chemical Biology program. “Student workers still need a neutral, independent grievance procedure for reporting cases of harassment and discrimination, but I’m hopeful that having an initial non-discrimination provision in our contract will open the door for greater improvements in future contracts. Our union will continue to fight to ensure that demand is met.”
Leaves. The contract guarantees leaves from work, including paid bereavement and sick days for salaried workers. HGSU-UAW also won provisions for student workers to have their positions protected when they take extended unpaid leaves to address medical concerns or to care for family.
“Having leaves in our contract will dramatically change student workers’ lives,” said Jenni Austiff, a member of the Bargaining Committee and fifth year PhD candidate in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology . “Despite our being paid as employees, student workers at Harvard have never had the protection that other university workers have when they need medical care for themselves or for a family member. This is an important step forward.”
In addition to highlighting student workers’ vulnerability, the coronavirus pandemic has accentuated their enormous contributions to education and research. Teaching fellows have had to adapt their methods and material to teach students remotely. Research assistants at Harvard are fighting COVID-19 in many ways—sequencing and identifying information about the pathogen, creating and implementing testing protocols, researching potential treatments and vaccines, and modeling the course of the disease to better understand how to implement effective public health policy. Despite this, Harvard insisted on a lower pay rate for teaching assistants at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health than the contractually-guaranteed rate for every other professional school.
Under the current circumstances, student workers see the contract a major achievement—and a direct outcome of their organizing and December strike. This historic contract provides important protections and guarantees while laying the groundwork to achieve even greater workplace rights and protections in future contracts.
Harvard student workers from all departments joined together in April 2018 to form HGSU-UAW. They formed their local union UAW Local 5118 to fight for fair pay, comprehensive and affordable healthcare, and key protections from harassment and discrimination, guaranteed through a union contract.
The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) is one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America, with members in virtually every sector of the economy. UAW-represented workplaces range from multinational corporations, small manufacturers and state and local governments to colleges and universities, hospitals and private non-profit organizations. The UAW has more than 430,000 active members and more than 580,000 retired members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The UAW represents roughly 80,000 higher education workers nationally, including 18,000 postdoctoral researchers, adjunct professors, and graduate workers in the Northeast who have chosen UAW representation in the last five years.
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