Information about Student Unionization

On April 18-19, 2018, Harvard students serving in certain research and teaching positions cast votes to determine whether or not to be represented by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). Of the 5,048 individuals who were eligible to vote in the election, 1,931 students (56% of voters) cast ballots for representation by the HGSU-UAW, while 1,523 (44% of voters) voted against representation. 1,594 eligible voters did not cast ballots in the election.

These results, which were certified by the National Labor Relations Board, mean that HGSU-UAW is now the sole channel through which students in covered positions have a say on wages, benefits, appointments, work hours, and work conditions. This represents a significant departure from the way that these issues have been handled until now, since each school’s dean and other university leaders are now legally prohibited from working directly with individual students or with student government on these matters.

In light of the outcome of the vote and the existing NLRB precedent, Harvard is prepared to begin contract negotiations with HGSU-UAW and will do so in good-faith, guided by its fundamental commitments as an academic institution. As Provost Garber has stated, there are three fundamental principles that will guide Harvard’s approach:

  • First, Harvard University must protect the integrity of our teaching mission. The University, across its diverse schools and programs, is dedicated to providing the best possible education to our students, both graduate and undergraduate. Decisions such as who is admitted, how teaching occurs, and who teaches, are academic judgments to be made by the University. Harvard is not under any obligation to negotiate with the United Auto Workers about academic matters, and will not do so, and it will not agree to terms that compromise our educational mission.
     
  • Second, the University must protect the academic freedom that undergirds our research mission. Harvard researchers deepen our understanding of the human condition and the world around us, promote the flourishing of the arts, introduce lifesaving medical breakthroughs, and improve societies and organizations. Research is a collaborative endeavor of students, faculty, and staff. In order to play their role effectively, faculty must be able to exercise their responsibility to manage and oversee matters relating to research. Within a context of mutual respect, academic freedom is essential to our faculty’s ability to advance knowledge.
     
  • Third, the University must serve all of its students, in every school and academic program. Approximately 22,000 students are enrolled at Harvard in any given year. The union will represent one-fifth of them – those who hold teaching and research positions that current NLRB rulings deem to be covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Harvard will continue to uphold its responsibility to every student, both those who are represented by the union and those who are not.

Below you will find a list of frequently asked questions and a brief history of student unionization at Harvard as well as general information about unions. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

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History of Student Unionization at Harvard

National Labor Relations Board Ruling

In August 2016, in a case involving Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed several of its prior decisions, which had held that students who served in compensated teaching and research capacities at private universities were not considered employees for the purposes of collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This reversal allowed students at Harvard and other private universities to begin the process of organizing and voting to be represented by a union.

Union Calls for Election

At Harvard, a group of graduate students interested in unionization chose to affiliate with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; known as the United Auto Workers (UAW), to create the Harvard Graduate Student Union-UAW (HGSU-UAW).

In the months leading up to the NLRB’s Columbia decision, union supporters at Harvard began organizing and collecting signatures on authorization cards that served as a written declaration of support for the HGSU-UAW to serve as their exclusive representative for collective bargaining purposes. In order to file a petition for an election under the NLRB’s rules, an organizing union must demonstrate that it has a sufficient showing of interest to warrant an election. That sufficient showing of interest is set by the NLRB at 30% of the proposed unit. The HGSU-UAW carried out this organizing activity at Harvard prior to the Columbia decision, in anticipation that the NLRB would eventually allow graduate students to unionize. Once that decision was issued, holding that undergraduate and graduate students could unionize, the union filed a representation petition with the NLRB, and the Regional Office of the NLRB in Boston processed the petition.

Harvard and HGSU-UAW then entered into an election agreement that was approved by the NLRB, and an election was scheduled for November 16 and 17, 2016.

List Preparation

Harvard convened a team of administrators who worked diligently to create a comprehensive and accurate list of eligible voters that included all students serving in positions covered by the bargaining unit as defined in the election agreement. The task presented unique challenges. For example: the bargaining unit was University-wide, timelines set by HGSU-UAW and the NLRB were tight, student employment status fluctuates frequently, especially at the beginning of a semester, and the information systems at Harvard were not designed for this purpose. Other private universities preparing for similar elections faced the same challenges.

First Election and Post-Election Proceedings

The first election was held on November 16 and 17, 2016, at three campus locations (Cambridge, Longwood, and Allston). Given the challenges of creating the voter list, particularly because employment in the bargaining unit fluctuates considerably throughout the year, Harvard encouraged all students who believed they should have been included on the voter list to go to the polls and vote “under challenge” (in NLRB parlance).

After resolving several hundred ballots cast under challenge, the NLRB counted the votes on December 22, 2016. The tally was 1,456 to 1,272 against unionization, with 314 challenged ballots remaining.

When the initial tally showed more votes against unionization, the HGSU-UAW filed an objection to the election arguing that if it lost the election following the counting of the disputed ballots, the NLRB should order a new election due to a voter list they contended was incomplete. The NLRB Regional Director agreed with the union that, if the HGSU-UAW lost following the counting of the additional ballots, another election should be held.

Harvard opposed the calling of another election.  Students demonstrated that they were well-informed on the issues and voted in large numbers, including those who had not been on the voter list. Because of this and the fact that Harvard and the HGSU-UAW agreed that all eligible students’ votes should be counted regardless of whether they were on the list and their votes were included in the final tally, the University maintained that the final result of the election, once determined, should stand and filed an appeal on that basis.

In its decision on December 12, 2017, the NLRB in Washington declined to take up Harvard’s appeal. As a result of that decision, on January 11, 2018, the regional office of the NLRB counted the remaining ballots from the November 2016 election. The final vote was 1,526 against unionization to 1,396 for, confirming that a majority of students voted against unionization. Per its previous ruling, the NLRB ordered a second election to take place.

Second Election and Next Steps

On April 18 and 19, 2018, Harvard students serving in certain research and teaching positions once again cast votes to determine whether or not to be represented by the HGSU-UAW. Of the 5,048 individuals who were eligible to vote in the election, 1,931 students (56% of voters) cast ballots for representation by the HGSU-UAW, while 1,523 (44% of voters) voted against representation. 1,594 eligible voters did not cast ballots in the election.

These results, which were certified by the NLRB, mean that HGSU-UAW is now the sole channel through which students in covered positions have a say on wages, benefits, appointments, work hours, and work conditions. This represents a significant departure from the way that these issues have been handled previously, since each school’s dean and other university leaders are now legally prohibited from working directly with individual students or with student government on these matters. Once negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement are complete and members of the union approve the contract, all students considered to be part of the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit will be bound by a single contract and will likely be required to pay union dues or agency fees.

While Harvard continues to believe that the relationship between students and the University—whether through teaching, learning, or research—is primarily an academic one, Harvard will begin contract negotiations with HGSU-UAW this fall.  It will do so in good-faith, guided by its fundamental commitments as an academic institution.

General Information about Unions

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 unions use their resources to participate at the state and federal level in lobbying to influence legislation and in political campaigns. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), if an appropriate group of employees in a particular workplace vote to be represented by a union, the employer is obligated to bargain exclusively with that union on matters related to employment for all those in the bargaining unit. 

In August 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, 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 NLRA.

Who decides which union will represent them?

Employees 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).

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 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 NLRB, 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 NLRB 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.  If a majority of votes are cast in favor of representation by the union, then the NLRB will certify the new union unless there are grounds undermining the legitimacy of the election.

Once a union has been established, is there a process to remove the union?

Once an election determines that a union will be the exclusive representation 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.”