On unions, broadly

What is a union?

A union is an organized association of workers representing and advocating for employees on matters of wages, 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. 

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. 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 has had a graduate student labor union contract since 2015 (read more about the graduate student union at NYU). More recently, American University, The New School, Tufts University and Brandeis University also entered into labor contracts with unions representing small units of graduate students. Bargaining is underway at Brown, Columbia, and elsewhere. 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. 


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 conduct a secret ballot election to determine whether a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit want the union to be their exclusive representative. 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).

As noted, the next step in the process is that the Board will conduct 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.

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). 


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.”

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Harvard student union membership

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:


“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)...”


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

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.

What is the impact 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 are bargaining collectively on terms of an 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 are being 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.

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, you will be represented by 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.

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.

However, 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.

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Union dues

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. While an employer does not have to agree to such a provision, a so-called “union shop” clause or similar variation is usually a major demand of any union since it ensures a revenue flow for the union.

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, for example, which also has a student union affiliated with the UAW, the local union instituted dues and agency fees of 2%, which is automatically deducted from students’ paychecks. 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%.

See also: Students, Union dues

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

If a “union shop” provision as described above is included in the collective bargaining agreement, 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). As noted, 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.

See also: Students, Union dues

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.

See also: Students, Union dues

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Contracts, bargaining, and negotiations

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, members are bound by provisions in the agreement while they are a member of the bargaining unit (that is, while they hold a job covered by the agreement).

What is a tentative agreement (TA)?

When the parties have reached agreement on an individual article at the table, they initial the article as a “TA” or tentative agreement. That means that the TA’d article will not be reopened during negotiations, except by mutual agreement. Importantly, the TA’d article does not take effect until a complete contract has been agreed upon and ratified. The articles which have been TA’d can be found here

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What is a labor arbitration?

Arbitration is a dispute resolution process that is used to resolve a dispute arising under a collective bargaining agreement. Usually, a neutral arbitrator, selected and paid by the union and the employer, has the power to issue a binding decision that is not subject to appeal except in very rare cases. However, arbitrators have no independent authority under law and only have the power and jurisdiction that the parties have given them through their negotiated provisions.

Usually, only the union may bring a case to arbitration following whatever grievance procedures the parties have negotiated. Typically, the grievance before the arbitrator is a claim by the union that the employer has violated a particular provision of the contract. For the most part, arbitration cases tend to involve either disciplinary issues, i.e. that the employer did not have just cause to discipline a particular worker (warning, suspension or termination), or other claims that the employer violated other articles of the agreement. For example, the union might claim that the employer failed to follow contract requirements in assigning work, or did not calculate pay correctly.

See also: Arbitration, Union

How does a labor arbitration work?

Arbitration is the final step of a grievance process described in the collective bargaining agreement. Those steps vary among contracts, but typically the grievance is reviewed by the supervisor at the first step. If the grievance isn’t resolved at that level, it is elevated to a second step of review, usually the next level of management, and then to a third higher step, still within the employer. If the grievance isn’t resolved at the third step, it is moved to arbitration. Sometimes the parties have only a two-step procedure; in other cases, multiple steps before arbitration. The parties (the union and the employer) jointly select an arbitrator (often using an agency such as the American Arbitration Association to manage the logistics) and the case is assigned a hearing date. At the hearing, both sides bring witnesses and other forms of evidence such as documents. The parties, usually represented by attorneys, present the case to the arbitrator. The process is similar to a trial in court before a judge or jury. Witnesses are called and examined by the attorneys – both direct examination and cross-examination. Documents are introduced as evidence. At the close of the evidence, the parties typically agree to submit briefs to the arbitrator summarizing the evidence and arguing their respective positions. The arbitrator considers the evidence and the briefs, and issues a written decision. If the arbitrator finds that the contract was violated, the decision would include a remedy for the violation.

See also: Arbitration, Union

Can an arbitrator run a full investigation?

The arbitrator is not an investigator. S/he expects the two sides – the employer and the union – to come into the hearing prepared with evidence to support their position, through witnesses and documents. Arbitration is not an alternative investigatory proceeding. In arbitration, the union is claiming the employer violated the contract; the employer is arguing that it did not. 

See also: Arbitration, Union

Who can choose to take a matter to arbitration?

Usually, only the Union can take a case to arbitration. A student, by themselves, has no right to take a case to arbitration. If a student worker who has been disciplined believes that the discipline was unjust, then they can ask the Union to file a grievance and take the case to arbitration if it is not resolved in the step grievance process.

See also: Arbitration, Union

Does an arbitrator impose discipline?

No. An arbitrator would consider the testimony and other evidence and decide whether the contract had been violated. The arbitrator would then fashion an appropriate remedy for the injured student worker. That could range from an award of back pay, to reinstatement, to payment for mental health appointments or other medical costs. Imposition of discipline on the person who engaged in the contract violation is outside the scope of the arbitrator’s authority.

See also: Arbitration, Union

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Title IX Office and Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR)

What options are available for a student worker who experiences sexual and/or gender-based harassment?

There are many resources and options available within the Harvard Community and beyond for students, staff, and faculty who experience sexual and/or gender-based harassment. Some options include:

Reaching out to your Title IX Coordinator to:

  • seek interim measures (e.g., course related extensions, work and/or course schedule adjustments, leaves of absence, no contact orders)
  • learn more about informal resolution and/or the formal complaint process
  • learn more about the University’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy

Seeking support from a confidential (or confidential privileged) resource on or off campus (e.g., The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, the Ombuds Office)

Reporting your concerns to the Harvard University Police Department or local police department

Seeking medical care from Harvard University Health Services, and/or local hospitals with sexual assault nurse examiners.

A full list of Harvard and community resources can be found here.

Are there options available to raise a concern anonymously?

Yes. In the fall 2019, Harvard is piloting a web-based system which allows members of the Harvard community to anonymously disclose incidents of sexual and gender-based harassment to the Harvard University Title IX Office at any time from their laptop or mobile device. The online system was specifically designed to protect the anonymity and maintain the confidentiality of those who choose to use it. Once someone submits their disclosure form through the system, they may create a username and password, so that they may return to their form at any time. A person may choose to return to their form to: provide additional information, check on the status of their disclosure, receive information on resources and support, and communicate – anonymously – with the University’s Title IX Office and School/Unit Title IX Coordinators. The types of conduct that may be disclosed through the online form may include, but are not limited to, unwelcome sexual advances; verbal, nonverbal, graphic or physical conduct of a sexual nature; stalking; exclusion from an activity based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

What is informal resolution?

Informal resolution is a voluntary process through which the party initiating the request identifies specific allegations and, with the assistance of their Title IX Coordinator, the Title IX Officer, or ODR, addresses those allegations through a written agreement that is mutually acceptable to both parties, the School or Unit Title IX Coordinator, and the Title IX Officer or the Director of ODR in consultation with the Title IX Officer.

Does a student worker who experiences discrimination or harassment have to seek informal resolution prior to filing a formal complaint with ODR?

No. Impacted parties may file a formal complaint with ODR without engaging in informal resolution. The informal resolution process is completely voluntary. In fact, most individuals who reach out to ODR proceed directly to the formal complaint process without accessing informal resolution. All parties, however, are informed of the option of informal resolution, as set forth in the procedures.

What is the difference between a disclosure and a formal complaint?

Disclosures are concerns regarding incidents of potential sexual or gender-based harassment that are brought to the attention of local Title IX Coordinators or the University Title IX Office; a formal complaint is a written and signed statement alleging a violation of the Policy. A complaint can be filed by the complainant or by a third party filing on behalf of a potential complainant (a “reporter”). Submitting a complaint to ODR starts the formal complaint process.

Where can a student worker find more information about the formal complaint investigation process, including the steps of the process?

Student workers have multiple means of accessing additional information about the formal investigation process. Student workers may access information about the formal complaint process here and/or they may meet with their local Title IX Coordinator or the University Title IX Office to learn more about the ODR formal complaint process. Individuals may also contact ODR to set up a time to learn more about the University’s Policy and Procedures. It is important to note that student workers may meet with ODR whether or not a formal complaint is filed. Student workers also do not need to share their name or identifiable information when meeting with ODR staff or Title IX staff.

Must a student worker first reach out to their Title IX Coordinator prior to filing a formal complaint with the Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR)?

No. While impacted parties are encouraged to connect with resources available at Harvard, including their local Title IX Coordinators, the University Title IX Office, or the array of confidential resources available across the University, individuals may choose to go directly to ODR to file a formal complaint without first accessing other University resources.

What factors can impact the length of a formal complaint investigation?

Many factors affect the length of the investigation in a particular case, including the type and total number of allegations per complaint; how long ago the conduct occurred, over how long a period of time, and how many policies may apply as a result; the nature and volume of the documentation submitted as evidence; the number of witness interviews; scheduling challenges, such as: academic obligations (e.g., exams, final projects); University holidays; and parties’ and/or witnesses’ travel abroad; the need for language interpretation/translation; and extensions in time granted to parties to designate their respective personal advisors, which may include attorneys.

What happens once an ODR investigation is complete?

Once an investigation has been completed, both parties are provided with a copy of a draft investigation report. Parties are permitted, but not required, to submit written responses to the draft report within one week of receiving it. ODR considers any written responses from the parties before finalizing the report. A copy of the final report is provided to both parties, along with the Title IX Coordinator and the appropriate School/Business Unit official.

What is included in an ODR Final Report on an investigation?

The report contains findings of fact, applies the preponderance of the evidence standard, determines whether there was a violation of the Title IX Policy, and, if a violation is found, outlines recommended measures to eliminate any harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects. The final report does not include recommendations with regards to sanctions to be taken against an individual who is found to have violated the Policy. Sanction and disciplinary decisions lies with the appropriate official within the Respondent’s school or unit.

Can either party appeal an ODR investigation report?

Both parties may appeal ODR’s determinations to an independent panel within one week of receiving a final report. Parties may appeal on two grounds: 1) procedural error that may change the outcome of the decision, or 2) substantive and relevant new information that was not available at the time of the investigation and may change the outcome of the decision.

Why aren’t details regarding the outcome of formal investigations shared broadly with the University community?

Upholding the privacy of the individuals engaged in the formal complaint process is central to the work of ODR. Often complainants, as well as witnesses for both parties, express reluctance to participate in the formal complaint process without assurances that the University will not publicly share information pertaining to their engagement in the formal complaint process.

As the number of formal complaints grow, we are better positioned to share additional data pertaining to formal complaint outcomes. This measure of greater transparency is reflected in the expansion of data shared year-over-year within the Office for Dispute Resolution and Title IX Office Annual Report.

Beyond disclosure and formal complaint data, we understand the interest in greater transparency around disciplinary sanctioning. In partnership with Schools/Units, we are exploring the feasibility of sharing aggregate sanctioning data provided by Schools/Units as a supplement to the upcoming FY 19 Annual Report.

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