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Harvard Students Who Work As Research, Teaching Assistants Are Voting On Unionization04:32Download

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A sign shows Harvard students the direction to Phillips Brooks House, one of three polling places on campus Thursday to vote for the student union election. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
A sign shows Harvard students the direction to Phillips Brooks House, one of three polling places on campus Thursday to vote for the student union election. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Harvard University students who work as research and teaching assistants are voting to decide whether they will unionize.

If they do, they would be the first to take advantage of a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board allowing students at private universities to form a union.

The two-day period of voting ends Thursday night, with results expected Friday morning. The students would join, of all unions, the United Auto Workers, which represents graduates students at several public universities.

"I hear of students who are given a teaching assistant job that they're getting paid for 10 hours a week, and then midterm season comes around, and suddenly they're being asked to hold multiple review sessions, to meet with students outside of their office hours, to grade extra papers, and then they're working for upwards of 30 hours a week," Abhinav Reddy, a master's student in the Computational Biology and Quantitative Genetics program and one of the organizers of the union effort, said Thursday.

"We're workers," said Abigail Weil, a PhD student in Slavic languages and literatures and another organizer of the union drive. "The university model is frankly somewhat of a medieval model, where you're dealing with apprentices and masters, and that's really not the way the economic system is anymore. We provide labor that the university relies on, and there's a salient economic interest in the labor that we all provide as teachers and researchers."

Harvard's provost, Alan Garber, sent an email to students warning that a union could require faculty to appoint teaching and research assistants based on seniority, not just the quality of their work. The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, reported that the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, sent another email to students urging them to consider the impact a union would have on what he called "the important relationship between a student and a mentor."

Weil rejected that argument.

"What we know from studies that have been done at unionized universities is that a union contract promotes better relationships between students and advisers because there's more transparency," she said.

A Cornell University study two years ago found unionization was indeed unlikely to damage the student-adviser relationship, and in fact in unionized students reported improved relations.

A student enters Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard to vote. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A student enters Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard to vote. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But not all students are on board. At one of the polling locations, at the Longwood Medical Campus on Wednesday, Elizabeth Jaensch, a graduate student at the medical school, voted against unionizing.

"And I voted that way because I feel like the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is a really diverse body, and I don't quite see us being represented effectively as one whole collective," she said.

At another polling spot, in Harvard Yard on Thursday, Kendall Clement also voted against the union. He's studying blood cancers in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department, and he does not see a union helping science students like him.

"For example, one of the services they offer is some kind of legal mediation service in case your relationship with your adviser goes south, and I feel like the absolutely worst thing you can do, refer an adviser," Clement said. "If the relationship goes south, you want to switch out of that advising relationship as fast as possible.

"Another thing they're guaranteeing is some kind of written thing about how many days you deserve off, or something like that, and if I show my adviser some kind of thing, like I deserve three days off, he's not going to care at all."

In an email to WBUR, a spokesman for the UAW said the union is not making any guarantees except that if students vote yes, they will have more power through collective bargaining. The spokesman said the elected committee could negotiate for minimum guarantees of time off. The spokesman said at the University of Washington, graduate workers are guaranteed a minimum of four weeks paid time off per calendar year.

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New York University already has a graduate student union. This election is the first since the NLRB ruling recognizing such unions at private universities, a reversal of an earlier NLRB ruling. Public university students across the country have unionized.

Jake Beckerman, a PhD student in nutrition at the School of Public Health, used to be one of them.

"I did my master's degree at UCLA," he said. "I was represented by a union there, and I felt that it was really helpful and just generally speaking, I feel that if student workers are being treated really well, then the union doesn't have anything to do, and there shouldn't be an issue with any of the administration."

If Harvard graduate students, and some undergraduates who are teaching assistants, do join their peers at NYU and at public universities like UCLA, it could be just the beginning of a big shift in higher education.

This segment aired on November 17, 2016.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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