History and FAQs about Graduate Student Unionization

Frequently Asked Questions

The Election and Eligibility

I understand that students voted against unionization in the November 2016 election. Why is a new election scheduled?

Once the preliminary tally showed that students had voted against unionization in the November 2016 election, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) filed an objection to the conduct of the election with the NLRB. In its objection, the HGSU-UAW claimed that the voter list prepared by Harvard was incomplete, relying on a 1966 NLRB case that created the “Excelsior list” rule (see the First Election section below for more information). The NLRB has now ordered that a new election be held on April 18 and 19, 2018.

If I voted in the last election, do I need to vote again?

Yes, if you are eligible to vote in the new election, you need to vote, even if you voted in the first election. Once the NLRB determined that a majority of students voted against unionization in the November 2016 election, they set aside those results and granted the HGSU-UAW a new election. There is no record of how you voted in the first election—even though you voted before, it is important that you vote again so that your voice is heard in this consequential second election.

Who should vote?

Everyone who is eligible to vote should participate because the election will be decided only by those who cast ballots, just like any political election. This means that if you are in the bargaining unit that the HGSU-UAW proposes to represent, the outcome of this election will affect you whether or not you vote.

How will I know if I am eligible to vote in the election on April 18 and 19?

All Harvard students who are on the voter list were sent an email from Paul Curran confirming their eligibility on March 28, 2018. If you believe you are eligible to vote but did not receive this eligibility e-mail, please contact StudentVote@harvard.edu.

Are students who are in their final semester eligible to vote?

Students who are currently working in a covered position (i.e., a research or teaching position) are eligible to vote, even if they are about to graduate.

It may seem odd that graduating students can be eligible to vote, but if they are eligible, their votes are very important. They are making a decision that will impact the students that come after them.

What are the voter eligibility criteria?

The official definition of the proposed 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 proposed 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.

If you hold one of these positions in spring 2018 as of a March 12 cut-off date, you are eligible to vote in the election on April 18 and 19.

In addition, if you are a doctoral student (including MDs and JDs) who is not scheduled to graduate in spring 2018, and you held one of these positions in the spring, summer, or fall of 2017, you are eligible to vote.

Anyone who believes they are eligible to vote based on the definitions above but is not on the voter list may come to the polls and cast a ballot under the official NLRB process known as voting “under challenge.” These ballots are sealed in an envelope with the voter’s name on the outside, so that the confidentiality of each ballot is strictly preserved. After the election, the eligibility of these ballots might be reviewed in proceedings before the NLRB, if necessary to determine the outcome of the election. If the margin between “yes” and “no” votes is greater than the number of votes cast under challenge, the challenged ballots will not be reviewed. If, however, the challenged ballots might be determinative of the outcome, then the challenged ballots would be reviewed individually. If the student is determined to be an eligible voter, their vote will be counted. The confidentiality of the ballots is maintained throughout this process.

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) requires that the University provide a list of included individuals to the NLRB, which is shared with the HGSU-UAW. 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 NLRB 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

Who is receiving my information?

The National Labor Relations Board and the HGSU-UAW.

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

You have the right to object to the release of your personal information. If you want to object, you will need to direct the objection to the National Labor Relations Board, Region One, 10 Causeway Street 6th Floor, Boston, MA 02222-1001, with a reference to Case 01-RC-186442. Please note, however, that during the November 2016 election, the NLRB required Harvard to provide the above information to the HGSU-UAW for all students, including those who raised an objection.

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, be your exclusive representative in collective bargaining with the University over the terms and conditions of your employment for as long as you hold an eligible position.

I have taught or served as a research assistant sporadically during my time as a student. Does that mean I would be in the union?

If students vote in favor of unionization and you hold a position deemed to be part of the bargaining unit, you become a member of the HGSU-UAW 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 union as they take on or complete these roles.

What if I think I should be eligible to vote but didn’t receive a notification?

The University sent a notification to all students on the list, as required by FERPA, to notify them that they are eligible voters and that their name and contact information will be provided to the HGSU-UAW and the NLRB. A separate notice will be sent to all students at the University to alert them that the FERPA notice has been sent to students on the voter list. If you do not receive notification of your status and believe you are eligible to vote based on the criteria listed above, please e-mail StudentVote@harvard.edu. We will respond to questions as quickly as possible.

Where and when can I vote?

A secret ballot election administered by the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled for April 18 and 19 at locations easily accessible to students. Please note that the HBS voting location will be open April 19 between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. only.

  • Cambridge Campus: Queen's Head Pub, Memorial Hall, Lower Level, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Longwood Campus: 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 Campus (April 19 only): Room 150, Batten Hall, Harvard Business School, hours from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

More information about voting was sent directly to those undergraduates and graduate students considered to be in the bargaining unit.

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 can vote however they choose 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.

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.

The laws and practices surrounding labor unions vary greatly from one country to the next. It is important to understand these differences when making your decision.

How will I cast my ballot?

Per NLRB practice, the election will be by secret paper ballot. You cast a “yes” or “no” vote on whether you want union representation.

I will not be on campus on the dates of the election. Can I vote in the election by absentee ballot?

The NLRB will supervise an onsite, secret ballot election and will not allow absentee ballots.

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.”

If I don’t vote, or I 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 and will be represented by the union, including those who do not vote, those who voted against unionization, and incoming students who won’t have the opportunity to vote at all.

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.

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.”

Union Dues and Agency Fees

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. Individuals who choose not to join the union may still be required to pay an equivalent agency fee. Depending on 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.

HGSU-UAW organizers have 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 provided by the UAW constitution.

Some local unions decide to impose higher dues. For example, the contract between NYU and the UAW, which represents NYU graduate students, mandates that all members of the bargaining unit are required to pay 2% of their total compensation during the semesters in which they are employed in a union position. The NYU contract provides annual stipend increases for RAs, which range from 2.25%-2.5% over the period 2015-2020.

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

The HGSU-UAW says that UAW dues on average are 1.44%, but 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 are automatically deducted from paychecks. The amount of union dues and other fees would not be known until the collective bargaining process has been completed.

A research assistant in the life sciences, for example, could pay more than $550 in union dues per year at 1.44% and more than $760 at 2%. The HGSU-UAW will likely seek to have any member of the bargaining unit—from undergraduate teaching assistants to research assistants at Harvard Law School to teaching fellows in GSAS—pay a minimum of 1.44% dues or agency fees.

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, 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

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.

I heard that students at Columbia University might strike. Could that happen at Harvard?

Strikes are the strongest form of economic leverage that unions possess in their negotiations with employers. If students at Harvard vote in favor of the union, the United Auto Workers could call a strike authorization vote, as is happening at Columbia. Under UAW rules, if 2/3 of those voting vote in favor of a strike, the UAW could require its members to strike.  Individual students would then have to decide whether to honor the strike.

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—also known as a collective bargaining agreement—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.

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 would be considered as a group, not as individuals. Special provisions for different categories of members 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 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.

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.

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).

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 (they are not part of the union at NYU). Even if a precedent existed, the law does not require particular provisions to be included in a union contract.

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 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.

What other universities currently have 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). There are a number of state universities that have years of experience with unions representing their students. State laws provide guidelines regarding what can and cannot be negotiated in those union contracts. With the NLRB ruling, students holding 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.

How can I find out more about unions and what a student union would mean?

This list of frequently asked questions provides more information about unions and the collective bargaining process.

The First Election

Why did the HGSU-UAW object to the November 2016 election?

In its objection to the election, the HGSU-UAW relied on an NLRB requirement known as the Excelsior List. The Excelsior List refers to a 1966 NLRB case involving the Excelsior Underwear Factory. The case held that because union organizers could not easily reach employees in the workplace with union campaign materials, employers must provide the union with a list of home addresses and other contact information for all potential members of the bargaining unit. At the Excelsior Underwear Factory, for example, union organizers lacked access to employees on the factory floor during work hours and did not have the ability to contact them at their homes.

The HGSU-UAW argued that the voter list provided by Harvard was incomplete and not compliant with the Excelsior List requirement, and that a new election should be held—even though the majority of omitted people voted and their votes were counted in the first election, and even though the omitted people knew about the union campaign and the election through other sources.

What is Harvard’s position on the HGSU-UAW’s objection?

Harvard opposed the HGSU-UAW’s objection to the election, based on the fact that in this election, the union organizers were able to reach the entire population of eligible voters with their campaign materials. Paid and volunteer HGSU-UAW organizers had unfettered access to students in the defined bargaining unit for months during the campaign leading up to the election, across the University’s physical campus and through e-mail, social media, and other communication channels. Harvard also encouraged students who believed that they should have been included on the voter list to go to the polls and vote “under challenge,” in NLRB parlance. For those later found to be eligible, their votes have been included in the final tally of 1,526 - 1,396 against unionization.

Why did Harvard oppose holding a second election?

Harvard believes that the results of the first election should stand because students were informed about the issues and voted in large numbers and because there is no reason to believe that omissions from the voter list compromised the integrity of the outcome of the election. In addition, the majority of students who were not on the University’s list did vote in the November 2016 election and had their votes counted in the final tally, which showed a majority of students did not support unionization.
While the 1966 NLRB Excelsior list rule enabled labor unions to communicate with potential members who could not be reached while they were at work on the shop floor, in a university setting no such barriers to communication exist. The HGSU-UAW had unfettered access to all students on campus, placed posters in key student locations, and used free and paid social media to reach all potential voters. The University itself included information about the HGSU-UAW in many of its communications to the voters and encouraged students who believed that they should have been included on the voter list to go to the polls and vote. It is unlikely that any student at Harvard was unaware of the election or the issues.

Was Harvard trying to abolish the Excelsior requirement?

No. Harvard asked the NLRB to overturn the Regional Director’s decision on two grounds. First, the voter list that was provided did substantially comply with the Excelsior List requirement to the best extent possible, given the unique characteristics of a student population, including that students are not employees holding continuous jobs, but rather cycle in and out of voting eligibility from semester to semester or even from month to month. Second, as mentioned above, the paid and volunteer union organizers had unfettered access to students across campus, both in person and through electronic means unimaginable when the Excelsior List requirement was put into place more than 50 years ago. Harvard itself took steps to ensure that students eligible to vote were aware of the HGSU-UAW’s message, so that the decision about whether to unionize was based on full information. Many of the Harvard voting messages included links to the HGSU-UAW website. Students knew about the unionization process and the election, which is reflected in the large voter turnout.

Why did Harvard appeal the Regional NLRB Director’s decision?

The November 2016 election was the culmination of a years-long process of union organizing and campaigning on our campus, resulting in impressively high voter turnout. Harvard did not believe that there was a valid basis for setting aside the results of the election. Harvard students voted in large numbers and they voted against unionization, a fact that the HGSU-UAW does not acknowledge. To immediately agree to a second election would have been to ignore the votes and voices of the majority of eligible voters that were expressed through this election process. Harvard believed their votes should have been respected and allowed to stand.

Why did the NLRB reject Harvard’s appeal?

The NLRB in Washington is not required to consider all requests for review of decisions made at the regional level. The NLRB determined that Harvard’s appeal did not raise a sufficiently substantial issue to warrant their review and that the decision of the Regional Director should stand.

Were any students turned away from the polls because they were not on the list of eligible voters?

No. Every student who came to a voting location with their Harvard ID was allowed to cast a vote.

If the student’s name was not on the voter list, the ballot was cast under the official NLRB process known as voting “under challenge.” These ballots were sealed in an envelope with the voter’s name on the outside, so that the confidentiality of each ballot was strictly preserved. During the post-election proceedings before the NLRB, each sealed envelope was reviewed individually. Many of these challenged ballots were easily resolved, for example, those who voted at a location other than their assigned location, or those who used a different version of their name on the ID than the version that appeared on the voter list. All of those ballots were counted. In other cases, information about the nature and timing of work performed determined whether a student was eligible or not. If the student was determined to be an eligible voter, their vote was counted. The NLRB Regional Director determined that 533 names were unintentionally omitted from the list of eligible voters, out of a total electorate of 4,475. Of those 533 students, 336 (or 63%) cast votes in November’s election. Their ballots are included in the final tally of 1,526 - 1,396 against unionization.

Does the NLRB believe Harvard intentionally left students off the voter list?

No. In his report on the election, the NLRB hearing officer stated that omissions from the list were not the result of bad faith on the part of the University. Harvard’s goal was to include all eligible voters on the list. A University team worked diligently to create the most accurate and comprehensive list possible. In addition, Harvard made a concerted effort to encourage all students who met the criteria of the bargaining unit to vote, even if they were unintentionally left off the list.

Why were names of eligible voters omitted from the list?

Harvard’s intent was to include all eligible voters on the list. Despite the best efforts of University’s list team, many factors resulted in omissions that were difficult or impossible to avoid. Because the University pays all students through the same PeopleSoft system—including graduate student stipends, whether they are associated with bargaining unit work (or any work) or not—identifying people holding relevant positions is not a simple matter. Other private institutions faced the same issues when preparing lists for their own student populations.

For example, many students employed at Harvard conduct work that is neither teaching nor research, so they would not be covered by the bargaining unit that the HGSU-UAW seeks to represent. Additionally, some student appointments are entered in the middle of the semester; this is particularly true for students serving in hourly research support roles, who tend to connect with a faculty member at some point during the semester. In many cases, students did not have an appointment as of the middle of October, when the list was created, but were actively working by the time of the election. Harvard and the HGSU-UAW agreed that those students’ votes should be counted nonetheless.

In some cases, the University and the HGSU-UAW disagreed as to whether the work being done by students in a particular position, or at a certain level of their graduate program, met the test as an instructional or research activity. After the election, the NLRB provided guidance so that the University can correctly include or exclude those categories from the voter list. In further preparation for a second election, Harvard has taken steps to improve use of work descriptions in PeopleSoft and to reduce the problems associated with appointments that are entered after the list cut-off date with a retroactive start. The University will work closely with Schools and departments to develop the voter list for the second election, with the goal that the list be as accurate as possible.