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Harvard University, Unionized Graduate Students Reach First-Ever Agreement

Rowers paddle down the Charles River past the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Rowers paddle down the Charles River past the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Harvard University has reached a tentative agreement on its first-ever contract with a union representing around 4,400 students who teach, conduct research and work on its campus.

As they laid out its terms, organizers with the Harvard Graduate Student Union called the agreement “historic." If ratified, they said, it will become just the eighth such agreement to cover students at a private American university.

Graduate students at Brandeis signed the first such contract in July 2018, with Tufts following that fall.

But the deal at Harvard is modest in scope. It doesn’t include some prominent demands that emerged during almost two years of bargaining, in particular the right for student-workers to bring complaints of harassment and discrimination to a neutral process of arbitration. And if ratified, it will last only until June 2021.

“This is a one-year truce,” said Ege Yumuşak, a third-year graduate student in philosophy who has sat on HGSU’s bargaining committee since 2018.

During that year, Yumuşak said, the union could start offering members what benefits they did win at the table: among them a 2.8% raise, a $16 minimum wage for hundreds of students, and a $350,000 fund to subsidize child care.

In a statement addressed to faculty, Harvard Provost Alan Garber called students "the heart of our institution,” and said the agreement “appropriately addresses the employment-related concerns of our student workers, while also ensuring the integrity of the University’s research and teaching mission.”

After months of slow progress — negotiations began in October of 2018 — the deal came together under periods of intense pressure.

Last December, HGSU members held a partial strike last December — only to call it off at the end of the month without a contract.

The union staged a media campaign calling attention to what they called inadequate protections against the sexual harassment of graduate students. The charges were highlighted by revelations that Jorge Dominguez — a prominent Harvard faculty member and former administrator — was accused of groping and propositioning graduate students and more junior faculty over the course of decades.

Then as the pandemic worsened, Harvard — along with most universities across the United States — emptied its campus in March. (Negotiations, too, moved online.)

Yumuşak said the one-year deal showed that student-workers "want to put the pandemic behind us. We were not ready to make the compromises we made outside of the context of a shorter agreement.”

She added that university officials across the tables were unlikely to offer long-term financial incentives with the shadow of COVID-19 still hovering over its budget — and with its fall semester likely to be taught largely online. “Our interests were aligned, in [that] way,” Yumuşak said.

Members of HGSU’s bargaining committee have unanimously recommended that members vote to ratify the agreement — but that, too, will have to happen online. Yumuşak said she expects that voting will start soon and continue through the end of June.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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