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Harvard’s Academic Workers Unionized. But in a Year of Labor Ups and Downs, How Did They Win?

Harvard Undergraduate Employees Launch Unionization Effort

Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union began advertising their effort to unionize student employees with posters around campus late last month.
Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union began advertising their effort to unionize student employees with posters around campus late last month. By Joey Huang
By Cam E. Kettles and Julia A. Maciejak, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union publicly launched late last month in an effort to unionize undergraduate student employees on campus.

The University’s graduate student union represents graduate student employees and undergraduates who work as teaching fellows, teaching assistants, and course assistants, but other undergraduate employees are currently without union representation.

In late January, the group began postering outside classrooms to advertise weekly Sunday meetings from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Sever Hall. On Feb. 2, HUWU launched its official Twitter account.

“No matter what you do outside of work, if you work, you deserve protections, and that includes undergrads,” said Benjamin B. Roberts ’23, an HUWU organizer.

The movement hopes to gain official union recognition in order to bargain with Harvard for a contract that would guarantee higher wages, more consistent hours, and increased communication from employers.

Undergraduate workers are limited to working for up to 20 hours during school terms, but they can log up to 40 hours a week during breaks. The base pay for undergraduate student workers is $15 per hour, which is the minimum wage in Massachusetts.

The idea for the initiative originated in the Student Labor Action Movement, according to HUWU organizers Syd D. Sanders ’24 and Olivia G. Pasquerella ’26, but HUWU became an independent movement as organizers began preparing in fall 2022.

HUWU’s start also coincides with the launch of Harvard Academic Workers-United Automobile Workers, which started a card drive to form a non-tenure-track faculty union Monday.

Workers who want to form a union can sign authorization cards to prompt either a union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board or voluntary union recognition by Harvard.

Unlike the non-tenure-track faculty union drive, HUWU has not begun their card campaign for official union recognition. Instead, Sanders said, the group is currently focused on publicizing the unionization effort before starting an official card drive in order to better reach undergraduates who are dispersed and often work in isolated jobs.

“The only way that you can build a union is if you have the support and the consent of the workers that are in those workplaces,” Pasquerella said. “It’s just very important that we get the word out as much as possible.”

The group is currently reaching out to students to assess their priorities, according to Roberts.

“We’ve been working on talking to different students and figuring out what they need, what’s hard in the workplace, basically what kind of protections we would be fighting for,” Roberts said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the formation of HUWU.

HUWU leaders have also been meeting with Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and HAW-UAW.

“They have a lot of expertise that they can give,” Pasquerella said. “That’s been one of the most helpful parts of trying to get this started is asking people who have done it already.”

In addition, HUWU organizers met with undergraduate organizers at Grinnell College and Kenyon College. Grinnell was the first college in the U.S. to fully unionize its undergraduate workers in April 2022. Kenyon College undergraduates are currently attempting to unionize.

Keir M. Hichens, a graduate of Grinnell College and former president of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, said there is currently a “new wave” of undergraduate union activity.

HUWU plans to begin their card drive soon, according to Sanders.

“Something is in the air,” he said.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.

—Staff writer Julia A. Maciejak can be reached at julia.maciejak@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @maciejak_a.

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