UPDATED: April 16, 2018 at 10:40 p.m.
Humor me with a thought exercise—and it’s better if you don’t use Google. You have a problem. A serious problem. Who is the first person at Harvard you might go to? Was your answer your advisor, your program head, or perhaps the Dean of GSAS? Do you know the names of all of these people, and where their offices are if you simply cannot wait for an email reply?
I hope more than 99 percent of graduate students are able to say ”yes” to these questions. Perhaps you may miss the 10 daily emails from the University and haven’t heard of incoming Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Emma Dench. Maybe, for better or worse, you have not had to interact with the Dean.
Nevertheless, even beyond Dench, Harvard Yard and the nearby Smith Campus Center house dozens of other administrators whose proximity and accessibility leads to both productive engagement with students and a focal point for student protests to have their voices heard. The benefits of this are clear. Students are involved in determining the health insurance plan and Title IX policies, and students’ victory in “pausing” investments of Harvard’s endowment in fossil fuels was only possible with a sit-in. Recent movements in demanding accountability and punishment for sexual assault prominently feature the impact of direct involvement of students and alumni.
Now repeat the exercise in a scenario with a United Auto Workers union. You have a problem. A serious problem. Who at the UAW would you go to? Do you know where their offices are? How expensive would an Uber be to get to their office? While the answer is less obvious, surely there is some staff member at the union you could go to. But what is their title, and where in the organizational hierarchy do they fall? The closest sub-regional office of UAW Region 9A is in Canton, MA—about a 30-minute drive by car or a 3-hour ride on public transportation.
Perhaps your problems need not be addressed in person. If you go to the website of the New York University graduate student union, which is the only example of a union at a private university that successfully negotiated a contract, the “Contact Us” page will redirect you to submit your serious problem to a committee of fellow graduate students. What if you have privacy concerns? Non-intuitively, you have to go to “Stewards and Staff,” under “About Us,” and then scroll past a couple dozen students to finally find UAW staff emails—but no phone number or office location. Meanwhile, on the Harvard GSAS website, the “Contact” page has the information in a simple and intuitive format to find the Office of Student Services.
Of course, the University’s administration is not perfect. There certainly are issues. Speaking from a position of privilege, I do not mean to minimize the experiences of anyone whom the University has failed. But the Harvard administration is at least accessible. With a union, even the simple task of finding who to go first for help is difficult. Imagine working towards a solution to your problem. Sure, there are many bureaucratic complexities and frustrations at Harvard. But with a union, you have to not only familiarize yourself with the “legal-ese” of the grievance process to address your problem (Article 20 of 26 of the NYU contract), but also include a representative from the UAW to act as a third party, in whom you best be confident that they understand your issue and can be a better advocate for you than yourself. Surely it is better to focus time and energy on the solution itself, not the bureaucracy of the union.
Moreover, it’s important to acknowledge that the UAW is an organization open to selling out on its progressive values, with the president of the union saying that he is willing to work with President Donald Trump “anytime.” Additionally, a hefty 28 percent of the union voted for Trump in 2016. Don’t you think there may be enough differences between the UAW constituency and Harvard graduate students that our political interests may be at odds? Is it possible these differences might work against us when deciding policy at the national level? For example, one indicator that the UAW does not prioritize their academic constituents is that only three sentences in 88 pages of their 2016 National Community Action Program booklet mentions graduate student workers.
The union might also further the increasing polarization of our community. Since the start a few years ago of the HGSU-UAW’s organizing campaign, graduate students have become increasingly fractured. Facebook comment sections of union posts quickly become hostile and some students have relayed to me that they have received hate messages from students who are pro-union. At a recent Longwood information session, I witnessed the student arguing against unionization treated with utmost disrespect—he was called a liar, laughed at, and interrupted by pro-union members, until audience members intervened. This may only become worse if a union is elected. For example, at NYU, at least two of the student union stewards mention their opposing positions on Israel/Palestine on the “Stewards and Staff” page. If a union is established, the next crucial step for us will be to elect a group of students to serve on the bargaining committee to negotiate with the University over a contract. It is already hard to imagine how a small group of students can faithfully represent the different interests of students from over 60 different programs. How will these discussions be affected by students who might decide to push their own political agendas over bargaining in the first place?
The union’s campaigning has focused solely on the best-case scenario. That is, we elect a bargaining committee that successfully represents our diverse needs and interests, and the University fairly negotiates a contract without calling our bluff of a strike—which I doubt the vast majority of graduate students would ever participate in. Perhaps we will hopefully get student organizers to address a troubling history in the UAW of corruption and mishandling of sexual misconduct. But there are myriad other reasons we should not vote for a union, and they will not all fit here. Those arguments have already been laid out elsewhere. But I implore students to think critically about what comes next. Already, graduate students have used the unionization effort as a platform to congregate and affect change on our campus. I hope that even if this effort fails, these students will continue in their drive to make Harvard a better place and carry this momentum to mobilize students around the causes they believe in.
Noah B. Bloch is a Ph.D. student studying Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 16, 2018
A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that Emma Dench is the incoming Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is, in fact, the Dean-elect of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
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