FAQs About Graduate Student Unionization

General Information about Unions
Union Elections
Sharing of Student Information and FERPA
Union Dues and Agency Fees
Collective Bargaining

General Information about Unions


Q: What is a union?

A union is an organized association of workers representing and advocating for employees on matters of hours, benefits, and working conditions. Unions also represent their members when disputes arise over contracts governing their work. Often, larger unions also use their resources to participate at the state and federal level in lobbying to influence legislation and in political activity to influence elections.

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed prior decisions and ruled that students (both undergraduates and graduate students) who serve in compensated teaching and research capacities at private universities are considered employees for the purposes of collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). If eligible students at Harvard vote to be represented by a union, Harvard is obligated to bargain exclusively with that union on matters related to employment for all students in the bargaining unit.

Q: Who decides which union will represent them?

The people who want a union to represent them typically affiliate with an established union and move to organize a new chapter of that union and achieve certification through an NLRB election. At Harvard, a group of graduate students chose to affiliate with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, known as the United Auto Workers, to create the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW (HGSU-UAW).

Q: How does a union gain recognition to represent a certain group of workers?

As a typical first step, union supporters will ask others in their workplace to sign authorization cards, which serve as a written declaration of support for that particular union to serve as their exclusive representative in negotiating terms and conditions of employment.

If union organizers can collect enough cards to constitute a valid “showing of interest” among the group that the union seeks to represent (the “bargaining unit”), the union can file a “representation petition” with the NLRB. The NLRB will review that petition and, if the NLRB determines that the authorization cards demonstrate at least 30% support among all the employees in the proposed bargaining unit, it will process the petition and call for an election. Once the petition is filed with the Board, the authorization cards serve no further purpose.

If the union and the employer do not agree on the scope of the bargaining unit, or who will be included or excluded from the proposed unit, then the Board will resolve such matters in a hearing (either before or after an election). The next step in the process is a secret ballot election in which all those in the proposed bargaining unit—not just those who signed authorization cards—can vote on whether they want to be represented exclusively by the petitioning union.

Union Elections
 

Q: Has an election been scheduled at Harvard?

Yes. Harvard worked with the HGSU-UAW on an agreement that schedules the election for November 16 and 17, at three locations:

  • Cambridge: The Parlor Room at Phillips Brooks House, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Longwood: Room 106, Dental Research & Education Building (REB), Harvard School of Dental Medicine, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Allston November 17 only: Room 150, Batten Hall, Harvard Business School, hours from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

More information about voting will be sent directly to those defined as being in the proposed bargaining unit. Voters will be assigned to one voting location and are encouraged to vote at the assigned location. According to instructions provided by the National Labor Relations Board, however: “If an individual voter votes ‘out of location,’ the voter will be permitted to vote subject to challenge.”

Q: How will I know if I am defined as being in the bargaining unit?

The bargaining unit is defined as follows:

Included: All students enrolled in Harvard degree programs employed by the Employer [Harvard] who provide instructional services at Harvard University, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Fellows (teaching assistants, teaching fellows, course assistants); and  all students enrolled in Harvard degree programs (other than undergraduate students at Harvard College) employed by the Employer  who serve as Research Assistants (regardless of funding sources, including those compensated through Training Grants).  This unit includes students employed by Harvard University and enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Business School, the Division of Continuing Education, Harvard Graduate School of Design; Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Harvard Law School, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Medical School, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Harvard College.

Excluded: All undergraduate students serving as research assistants, and all other employees, guards and supervisors as defined in the Act.

If you are eligible to vote, you will receive more information on how and where to vote closer to the date of the election.

Q: If I signed an authorization card, does that mean I have to vote in favor of the union during the election?

Those who signed authorization cards are not obligated to vote in support of the union during the secret ballot election. Once a petition is filed with the NLRB, and the showing of interest is confirmed, the authorization cards serve no further purpose.

Q: I’m an international student. Can I vote in the election or be included in the union?

Yes. Your status as an international student does not affect your eligibility to vote or be in the union.

Q: When and how can I vote in the election?

Harvard University and the HGSU–UAW have agreed that the election will take place on November 16 and 17, in three locations:

  • Cambridge: The Parlor Room at Phillips Brooks House, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Longwood: Room 106, Dental Research & Education Building (REB), Harvard School of Dental Medicine, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Allston November 17 only: Room 150, Batten Hall, Harvard Business School, hours from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

NLRB representatives will supervise the election.

Q: How will I cast my ballot?

The election will be by secret ballot. You cast a “yes” or “no” vote on whether you want union representation.

Q: I will not be on campus November 16 and 17. Can I vote in the election by absentee ballot?

A: The NLRB will supervise an onsite, secret ballot election. No absentee ballots will be permitted.

Q: How will the outcome of the election be determined?

The election is decided by a majority of those who vote, not by a majority of those eligible to vote, just as in a political election. If a majority of those voting support union representation, all eligible voters—including those who did not vote and those who voted against—will be represented exclusively by the union on matters concerning pay, benefits, and other “terms and conditions of employment.” 

Q: Who should vote?

Everyone who is eligible to vote should vote, because the election will be decided only by those who cast ballots, just like any political election. That means that union representation for people who don’t vote will be determined by those who do vote.

Q: If I don’t vote or vote no, am I bound by the results of the election?

Yes. Everyone determined to be in the bargaining unit will be bound by the results of this election. For example, if the election outcome is in favor of unionization, everyone in the bargaining unit will be bound by that result, including those who do not vote, those who voted against unionization, and incoming students who won’t have the opportunity to vote at all.

Q: If students vote against unionization, can there be another election in the future?

Yes. There is a one-year waiting period after an election until another election can be held. The same union or a different union could seek an election one year later.

Q: If students vote for unionization, is there a process to remove the union?

Once an election determines that a union will be the exclusive representative of those in the bargaining unit, that union normally remains in place indefinitely to represent all future members of the bargaining unit. However, there is a decertification process to remove an incumbent union. It is the reverse of the certification process and requires employees to solicit sufficient signatures to file a decertification petition with the NLRB and seek an election to vote the union out. Such a petition cannot be filed within the first year of a union’s certification, and if there is a collective bargaining agreement in effect it can ONLY be filed between the 60th and 90th day prior to the contract’s expiration. Decertification movements are rare, and they cannot be sponsored, supported, or otherwise assisted by management.

Sharing of Student Information and FERPA

 

Q: Why did I receive a FERPA notification?

The University sent this notification to all students who may be included in the bargaining unit that the HGSU-UAW is seeking to represent. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency overseeing the election process by which employees vote on whether they wish to be represented by the HGSU-UAW, requires that the University provide a list of included individuals first to the NLRB so that it can determine whether there is sufficient interest in union representation (based on the number of signed authorization cards) to allow an election to proceed. If there is a sufficient showing of interest, the information is provided to the HGSU-UAW. Consistent with this procedure, on Friday, October 21, 2016, the NLRB issued a subpoena to the University seeking this information. Because some of the requested information is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the University was required to notify students that their information would be provided to the Board and the HGSU-UAW.

The information that the University is required to provide is:

• Your name
• Identification of you as a Harvard student holding a covered position (Teaching Assistant, Teaching Fellow, Course Assistant, Research Assistant – but not undergraduate student research assistants)
• Location of your assignment in a covered position (School, Department)
• Contact information including local address, personal email address, and personal home and cellular telephone numbers

Q: What does it mean to be in the bargaining unit?

If the teaching and/or research position you hold at the University is included in the bargaining unit, it means HGSU-UAW will, if elected, represent you in collective bargaining with the University as long as you hold a bargaining unit position.

Q: Who is receiving my information?

The National Labor Relations Board and the HGSU-UAW.

Q: What if I don’t want my personal information shared?

If you do not want the University to share the information, you have the right to object to the subpoena and release of your personal information. If you want to object, it is not sufficient to notify Harvard. You will need to direct the objection to the National Labor Relations Board. Details are given in the letter you received from Paul Curran (Director of Labor and Employee Relations).

Q: What if I think I should be able to vote, but I didn’t receive the notification?

If you believe you should have received a notice because you think your position should be included in the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit, please send an e-mail to StudentVote@harvard.edu. We will respond to questions as quickly as possible.

Q: What if I received the notification, but I don’t think I should have because I shouldn’t be in the bargaining unit?

If you believe you should not have received the FERPA notification because you believe your position should not be included in the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit, please send an e-mail to StudentVote@harvard.edu. We will respond to questions as quickly as possible. 

 

Union Dues and Agency Fees


Q: Will I have to pay dues, even if I don’t want to join the union?

Federal labor law allows unions to propose in collective bargaining that members of the bargaining unit either become dues-paying union members or pay the union a similar fee, referred to as an agency or representation fee. Depending on the contract in force, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment. This is a negotiable item but most unions insist on such a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to ensure payment of dues.

For example, the NYU contract with the labor union representing graduate students mandates that all union members pay either the union dues or an agency fee which is equivalent to the union dues.

Q: If students vote to unionize, how much will I pay in union dues?

There is no way to predict precisely what the dues would be for Harvard students who would be members of a labor union. The HGSU-UAW website says that UAW dues are currently 1.44%.

This means that at a teaching fellow who receives $21,200 per year would pay union dues equal to $305. However, at NYU, which is the only private university with a graduate student union, graduate students who are members of the United Auto Workers local (GSOC-UAW) pay 2% of total compensation during a semester that they are employed in a union position (read more about the graduate student union at NYU. Dues are deducted from paychecks automatically. For a Harvard teaching fellow who receives $21,200 per year, a 2% dues rate would translate to $424 per year. However, no information about dues and other fees can be known until the collective bargaining process is complete.

Collective Bargaining


Q: How will a union impact my life as a student?

Students who belong to the bargaining unit would be exclusively represented by the union on any matter that involves wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. Under the NLRA, employers and unions bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” The NLRB and the federal courts have broadly interpreted these concepts in the past, but not for students at private universities, so it is impossible to predict the outcome of any negotiation. The law does not specify that any particular clause, provision, or benefit must be included in a union contract. That is left to the parties to negotiate at the table. The law only requires the parties to engage in good faith negotiations.

Q: I’d like to review a proposed contract in advance of voting. Is that possible?

No. There is no contract to review at this point. Eligible students must first vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. If a majority of these students vote in favor of a union, the union and Harvard will begin the collective bargaining process to develop a contract that will apply to the students in the bargaining unit. Once a contract is negotiated, union members will have the opportunity to vote to accept or reject that contract.

Q: Students in different Harvard Schools and in different departments within Schools have very different experiences and needs. Could exceptions be added to the negotiated contract that would recognize and accommodate my individual needs?

As a collective bargaining unit, students are considered as a group, not as individuals. Special provisions for different categories of members would need to be provided for in the labor contract or agreed to by the union through the collective bargaining process. Once a tentative agreement is reached, all union members have the opportunity to vote on the contract. If at least 50% of those who vote approve it, the contract is binding on all.

Q: If I object to a provision in the contract that is negotiated, do I have to abide by that provision?

Yes. Collective bargaining is just that, collective. The union would represent all students determined to be in the bargaining unit and the provisions in whatever contract they negotiate will apply to all. Any exceptions would need to be explicitly stated in the contract or negotiated with the union. Any collective bargaining agreement must be ratified by more than 50% of the members but once it goes into effect, you are bound by provisions in the agreement.

Q: I have taught sporadically during my time as a student. Does that mean I am in the union?

If you hold a position deemed to be part of the bargaining unit, you become a member of the bargaining unit during the time you hold that position (unless the contract specifies otherwise). This means that students who serve in teaching and research roles would likely cycle in and out of the bargaining unit as they take on or complete these roles.

Q: Can the union bargain for everything and anything, including areas that fall outside my duties as a teaching fellow or research assistant?

Under the NLRA, employers and unions are required to bargain collectively on “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” These are called “mandatory subjects” of bargaining. While the NLRB and the courts have interpreted these concepts in other employment sectors, no precedent exists for determining what are the bargainable “terms and conditions of employment” for students at private universities, whose teaching and research are part of their academic training. (The distinction between private and public universities is meaningful, since labor contracts at public universities are generally governed by state laws, not by the NLRA.) Some academic issues are clearly not bargainable, such as student degree requirements, but many others might be questionable. That means it is possible that disagreements over what is bargainable in the context of higher education may need to be resolved by the NLRB.

Q: If students vote to unionize, will the union increase stipends and/or improve my benefits?

There are no guarantees. Stipends and benefits, for example, might become the subject of collective bargaining and negotiation, to the extent that they are part of employment terms and conditions (as opposed to academic matters), but there is no way of knowing now whether or how current stipends and benefits might change.

NYU provides the only example of what happened to pay rates for unionized graduate students at a private university. There, the graduate student union (the GSOC-UAW) negotiated annual pay raises (before dues are deducted) for research assistants of 2.25% to 2.5%, and teaching assistants’ pay is contractually guaranteed to be “no less than” pay for adjunct faculty. Union members at NYU pay union dues of 2% of total compensation during a semester that they are employed in a union position (read more about the graduate student union at NYU).

Q: Will the union dictate the number of hours I can work as a graduate research assistant in the sciences, if I am considered part of the bargaining unit?

Hours of work could clearly be a subject of bargaining. There is no precedent for how issues surrounding work hours could be handled because graduate research assistants in the sciences in private universities have not been included in a bargaining unit. Even if a precedent existed, the law does not require particular provisions to be included in a union contract.

Q: Will the amount and allocation of student fees be subject to negotiation?

Because these fees are charged to all students—undergraduates and graduate students, whether they are conducting research or teaching—the fees might not be considered to be part of the “terms and conditions of employment” and therefore might not be part of the bargaining process.

Q: Will a union contract affect the research activities I engage in outside of Harvard, which are an important part of my academic program? For example, if I attend conferences or workshops, or conduct field work or research at other universities?

If these activities are considered part of the working conditions of a research assistant or teaching fellow, they could be subject to negotiation.

Q: I know that student unions exist at other institutions. What makes Harvard different?

Graduate student unions exist at many public universities across the country, with differing contracts and bargaining units because different laws govern private and public universities. Public universities are governed by state labor laws, which tend to limit the subjects that can be negotiated. Harvard, like other private employers, is governed by federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act). The NLRA requires bargaining over wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment, and permits (but does not require) bargaining on other topics. As noted above, no precedent exists for determining these “terms and conditions of employment” for students at private universities, whose teaching and research are part of their academic training.

Further, at most public institutions strikes are illegal under state law. In the private sector, however, under the National Labor Relations Act, strikes are legal and may be called by a union if negotiations break down at the table.

Q: What other universities currently have student labor union?

New York University is the only private university that currently has a student labor union (read more about the graduate student union at NYU). There are a number of state universities that have years of experience with unions representing their students. It is important to note that state laws provide guidelines regarding what can and cannot be negotiated in union contracts. With the NLRB ruling, students fulfilling certain positions in private universities have been deemed employees with the right to unionize, but the same state-level guidelines and restrictions do not apply. It is important to realize that the position of Harvard is somewhat different, and the union could potentially seek to bargain on issues that it could not in a state university. 

Q: Where can I find more information about what union representation would mean for me?

Many opinions exist regarding student unionization. In addition to reviewing the information contained in this FAQ, you can speak with other students, staff, or faculty. You can also visit the HGSU-UAW’s website or Facebook page or speak to one of the union’s representatives.

Some of this content was adapted from the University of Chicago’s website.