FAQs about Graduate Student Unionization

Frequently Asked Questions

The Bargaining Unit

Who is included in Harvard Graduate Student Union–United Auto Workers bargaining unit?

The official definition of the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit is 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)...”

Excluded: “All undergraduate students serving as research assistants, and all other employees, guards, and supervisors as defined in the [National Labor Relations] Act.”

Putting the definition in more concrete terms, the following student-held positions are generally considered to be within the scope of the bargaining unit:

  • Teaching fellow
  • Teaching assistant
  • Course assistant
  • Other instructional roles (e.g. lecturer, instructor) held by students in degree programs
  • Hourly-paid student research assistant (excluding undergraduate students)
  • Graduate student research assistants—those students who are enrolled in graduate science and engineering programs who are receiving a stipend (or other compensation for their services—regardless of the source of the funds) and are performing research under the supervision of a faculty member.

I have taught or served as a research assistant 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 (listed above), you will be a member of the HGSU-UAW during the time you hold that position (unless the collective bargaining agreement specifies otherwise). This means that students who serve in teaching and research roles will likely cycle in and out of the union as they take on or complete these roles.

What are the consequences of being in the bargaining unit?

Since a majority of eligible students voted in April 2018 to be represented by HGSU-UAW, all students who hold positions in the defined bargaining unit are now exclusively represented by the union on any matter that involves “wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment” for as long as they hold an eligible position. No individual student in this group can be excluded or will be able to negotiate a separate agreement. The HGSU-UAW is now the sole representative of the entire group.

The HGSU-UAW and the University’s administration will bargain collectively on terms of a collective bargaining agreement.  Once agreement is reached and the contract is ratified by HGSU-UAW membership, the contract will supersede terms previously determined by individual agreements between students and faculty based on a specific academic program or personal needs. Like the clerical, custodian, and food service employee unions, negotiations will be conducted with Harvard’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations, not with school deans or deans of students. Similarly, the collective bargaining process provides no role for elected student government representatives.

Will my personal information be shared with the union?

If you hold or have recently held a position that is part of the collective bargaining unit, then some information about you may be shared with the union.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, the HGSU-UAW has the right to request and receive relevant information from the employer regarding its members.  Therefore, the University is required to release certain information about its students holding bargaining unit positions.

Any such disclosure is restricted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), a federal law that gives students certain rights with respect to their education records. Ordinarily, students must consent to the disclosure of information from their education records. However certain types of information, known as “directory information,” may be released to the public – or to the HGSU-UAW – without written consent by the student.

Under the Harvard University Common FERPA Directory Information Elements, which governs requests for directory information received at the University level, directory information includes things like your name, address, email address, field of study, degree program, and dates of enrollment. Directory information also includes the following employment-related information: job title, teaching appointment (if applicable), employing department, and dates of employment.  This information may be provided to the HGSU-UAW.

If you do not want your directory information to be shared with the union, you should submit a FERPA block with your School’s Registrar’s Office.  Please note, however, that this will restrict all disclosures of your directory information, not just disclosure to the union.

For personally identifiable information that is not directory information, the HGSU-UAW generally could not be given that information without your written consent.  For more information regarding FERPA, see the FERPA Overview.

Union Dues and Agency Fees

Will I be required to pay union dues and what will they cost?


For private employers, like Harvard, 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. The amount of union dues and union agency fees, if any, will not be known until the collective bargaining process has been completed. During the election, however, HGSU-UAW organizers stated that union dues would be 1.44% of the pay earned by members of a Harvard bargaining unit. That is the minimum amount of dues required by the UAW constitution.

Some local unions decide to impose higher dues, however. At NYU, the only other private university that has a contract with a student union (which is also affiliated with the UAW), the local union instituted dues and agency fees of 2%, which is automatically deducted from students’ paychecks.

The amount of union dues and other fees will not be known until the collective bargaining process has been completed. However, as an example, a graduate research assistant in the life sciences could pay more than $550 in union dues per year at 1.44% and more than $760 at 2%.


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


Since 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 agency or representation fee, individuals who choose not to join the union may still be required to pay an equivalent fee. Depending on the terms of the contract in force, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research appointment (the NYU contract has this provision). This is a negotiable item but most unions insist on such a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to ensure payment of dues.

You might have heard of a recent United States Supreme Court decision holding that the requirement that employees in a unionized workplace must pay either union dues or an equivalent amount as an agency fee is unconstitutional.  That case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, involved a public sector employer, not a private university such as Harvard.  Because of that distinction, the holding in Janus does not apply here.


Where do my union dues go?


Dues collected from UAW members are allocated between the local union, the International Union General Fund, and the International Union Strike and Defense Fund. While the exact breakdown depends on strike activity in a given month, the UAW dues FAQ provides an estimated breakdown showing that approximately 40% of your monthly dues would go to the local union, another 40% would go to the international United Auto Workers, and the final 20% would go to the UAW’s Strike and Defense Fund.

Collective Bargaining and Union Contracts

When will collective bargaining begin?


HGSU-UAW and Harvard are expected to begin the collective bargaining process in the fall of 2018 to develop a contract—also known as a collective bargaining agreement—that will apply to all students in the bargaining unit. Once terms of a contract are agreed to by the HGSU-UAW bargaining team and the University administration, union members will have the opportunity to vote to accept (ratify) or reject that contract.


What will be included in a contract?


Until the HGSU-UAW membership votes to ratify a collective bargaining agreement, it is impossible to state with any certainty what will be included in a contract.

At a high level, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) requires employers to bargain with duly-elected unions over “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” Under this definition, topics could include union dues and agency fees, compensation and benefits, leaves, and workload requirements, among other things.

To the extent that policies and benefits are tied to the educational relationship between the University and its students, rather than an employment relationship, they would not be mandatory subjects of bargaining under the NLRA. For example, grades and grade appeals would not be topics of negotiations because they fundamentally involve the assessment of students as students, not as employees.

Because there is so little legal precedent involving a student union at a private university, however, the boundaries between employment and academic activity are not clear and are likely to be disputed.


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, student employees must be considered as a group, not as individuals. Special provisions for different categories of members could be part of the contract, but would need to be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.

Once a tentative agreement is reached, all union members have the opportunity to vote on the contract. Under most union rules, if a majority (more than 50%) of those who vote approve it, the contract is binding on all.


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 now represents all students 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 while you are a member of the bargaining unit (that is, while you hold a job covered by the agreement).


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 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.


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 matters relating to student status), 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).



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.


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 the boundaries of “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.  For example, graduate students at Columbia University called a one-week strike at the end of Spring Term 2018.


What other universities currently have a student labor union contract?


New York University is the only private university that currently has a student labor union contract (read more about the graduate student union at NYU).  As of the fall of 2018, negotiations are underway at Tufts University and Brandeis University, for small units of graduate students.  There are a number of state universities that have years of experience with unions representing their students. For those state universities, state laws—rather than federal labor law—provide guidelines regarding what can and cannot be negotiated in those union contracts. Those state-level rules and restrictions do not apply to private universities like Harvard. 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.



How can I find out more about HGSU-UAW and unions in general?


You can visit the HGSU-UAW’s website or Facebook page or speak to one of the union’s representatives.


For more background about unions and how they become established, see General Information about Unions.