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Harvard’s Grad Student Strike, Explained: How Did We Get Here, and What’s Next?

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Since Harvard and its graduate student union began negotiations in March, the road to a second contract has seen seven months of bargaining, one contract extension, a virtual walkout, and two rallies. On Wednesday morning, the union will launch its second strike in two years.

Graduate and undergraduate student workers and their supporters are headed to picket lines in Harvard Yard and Longwood, with the union’s bargaining committee confirming Tuesday night that the strike will begin at 6 a.m.

From the outset of negotiations, Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers stood firm on several key demands, including compensation and benefits, third-party arbitration for claims of identity-based discrimination and sexual harassment, and agency shop, which requires all student workers represented by the union to pay union dues to cover bargaining costs.

These same issues hampered negotiations for HGSU-UAW’s first contract with Harvard, leading the union to go on strike for 29 days in December 2019. The following July, the union ratified its first contract after nearly two years of negotiations.

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Nonetheless, the one-year contract did not contain provisions for agency shop or independent arbitration of harassment and discrimination.

Seven Months of Bargaining

A month into negotiations for a second contract, in April 2021, HGSU-UAW and the University opened up their Zoom bargaining sessions to union membership. Members observing the negotiations said they felt frustrated at what they described as repeated “stalling” and “questioning” of HGSU-UAW’s proposals by the University, specifically those dealing with the discrimination and harassment grievance process.

With the expiration of the first contract impending at the end of June, more than 600 student workers pledged to organize a strike should the University continue to reject the union’s key proposals. At a June 30 bargaining session, members left the Zoom in protest against the University’s proposal for one-time bonuses instead of percent raises.

As bargaining dragged on, the two sides agreed to extend the current contract to Aug. 31. In July, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the University with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Harvard failed to provide information on the bargaining unit and University policies.

With major issues still unresolved, the union announced in August that it would hold a strike authorization vote in September. Union membership overwhelmingly authorized a strike with 92 percent of voters in favor.

Compromise as Strike Looms

On the University’s side, Harvard’s bargaining team has put forth several proposal packages in recent months. In September, it increased its compensation and benefits proposals and introduced an unprecedented third-party arbitration appeals process for cases not related to Title IX or other gender-based discrimination and harassment.

Last week, the union conceded its long-standing demand for third-party arbitration of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment cases, but maintained its demands for legal expense funds, third-party arbitration for all non-Title IX cases, and that Title IX panels be composed of a majority of third-party individuals.

On Tuesday, in another new proposal package, Harvard suggested arbitration for non-Title IX cases of discrimination and harassment as proposed in the August package, as well as two new provisions: non-binding mediation after student workers follow the internal appeals processes for all discrimination and harrassment cases, as well as a legal expense fund of $50,000 per fiscal year.

Under the proposal, all complaints of discrimination and harassment would still first be required to be processed under Harvard’s internal procedures. Then, for certain Title IX-related cases, student workers may appeal the decision — if the union decides it is dissatisfied with the results of the internal appeal, it can then take the matter to mediation with a mediator selected by the union and the University, though the decision does not impose anything on the accused party.

For non-Title IX-related cases, if a case is appealed internally under University procedures and HGSU-UAW is dissatisfied with the result, the union can also take the matter to mediation.

Tuesday’s package also includes a $21 million increase to compensation and benefits for a four-year contract — a $7 million increase from the last comprehensive proposal package released Aug. 31 for a three-year contract.

“The University remains committed to continuing negotiations in good faith and reaching a contract agreement,” Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote in a University-wide email Tuesday.

Union Pushes Ahead

Despite these proposals, HGSU-UAW decided Tuesday to move forward with its three-day strike, arguing that the package does not meet the union’s demands for greater raises, agency shop, and majority third-party representation on hearing panels for discrimination and harassment claims. The union articulated these demands in a counterproposal it sent to Harvard Tuesday night, according to an email to membership.

In preparation for Wednesday’s picket lines, many teaching fellows have informed their students of their plans to withhold labor. Some distributed an undergraduate FAQ created by the union and a strike support letter for students to add their signatures.

Bastian Lasse, a teaching fellow for German 20A: “Intermediate German” who also participated in HGSU-UAW’s 2019 strike, said he decided to strike again after seeing that the University did not meet the union’s demands on issues like procedures for sexual harassment complaints.

“The bargaining team reached out their hands, and the University repeatedly neglected to shake hands with the bargaining team,” he said.

Hallie C. Zenga-Josephson ’24, an undergraduate course assistant for Math MA: “Introduction to Functions and Calculus I,” said she decided to strike to help demonstrate the power of student workers.

“It will really show the school how valuable our student workers are, and hopefully it will help the progress with bargaining,” she said.

Denish K. Jaswal, a teaching fellow for Philosophy 129: “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” and a co-chair of the HGSU-UAW Contract Enforcement and Education Committee, said the pandemic has made it difficult to organize student workers, but she hopes the three-day strike will exhibit the union’s support network and the potential damage of a longer strike.

“These three days will be a very strong show of the support that we really do have, and they will disrupt the University,” she said. “This is kind of a warning to Harvard that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you three days of what a strike will look like. Do you really want this for your university?’”

“If you don’t, please actually bargain with us in good faith,” Jaswal added.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang contributed to reporting.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.

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