Update on Negotiations with the HGSU-UAW

November 26, 2019

As we approach the deadline the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) has set for a strike, I write with an update on the contract negotiations.

The University recognizes HGSU-UAW’s right to strike and believes that both parties have a responsibility to work hard to propose reasonable and mutually agreeable solutions. The University has met with HGSU-UAW’s bargaining team in formal negotiation sessions, subcommittee and sidebar meetings, and other exchanges. The fact that we are still meeting 13 months after negotiations began is not due to a lack of good faith by the HGSU-UAW or the University, but is rather a reflection of the complexity of negotiating a first contract with such a large and diverse union. At other universities, first contracts with graduate student worker unions have taken 12-18 months.

To clarify where these negotiations stand today, the University has placed all of its current proposals online, along with the 12 articles on which we have reached tentative agreement. I hope that you will take the time to review these proposals to better understand what the University has put forward and what the remaining areas of disagreement are.

Compensation and Benefits

Although both undergraduates and students from all of Harvard’s graduate and professional schools are in the bargaining unit, approximately two-thirds of HGSU-UAW members are Ph.D. students. Each Ph.D. student currently receives five years of guaranteed financial support from when they enter their program, totaling between $329,000 and $382,000, depending on the area of study. This support includes stipends, full tuition, and payment of all their health insurance premiums. The proposals that Harvard has put forward in these negotiations would add to existing support.

The compensation and benefits for student workers that Harvard provides today compare well with support provided by peer institutions. The University’s compensation proposal calls for an 8% increase over three years for research assistants and 7% for teaching fellows, which are greater increases than what UAW has negotiated for graduate student unions at other universities. The union, on the other hand, has proposed for research assistants an increase of 11% in year one; for teaching fellows increases of between 11% (for PhD students receiving financial aid) and 50% or more (for students not receiving financial aid) in year one. For subsequent years, the union has proposed that both research assistants and teaching fellows receive a minimum 4% increase per year.

On benefits, the University has put forward generous proposals, offering to establish financial assistance funds totaling more than $700,000 annually for child care, health care and dental care premiums, and emergencies, along with guaranteed vacation and other leave. The proposed financial assistance funds are greater than those found in comparable union contracts at other universities and add to the benefits already provided to Harvard students.

Discrimination and Harassment

A significant area of disagreement concerns HGSU-UAW’s proposal to adopt traditional labor arbitration for discrimination and harassment matters. Federal Title IX regulations require that the University provide an equitable process and that trained investigators conduct investigations. A labor arbitration is not an investigation, nor is an arbitrator an investigator. Rather, labor arbitration is an adversarial process between an employer and a union to settle potential contract violations. Additionally, labor arbitration includes cross-examination, possibly with attorneys. Harvard is on record opposing cross-examination for Title IX cases, as is UAW International, in comments to the U.S. Department of Education regarding its proposed changes to federal regulations. The University believes that such an adversarial process would discourage students from reporting incidents. Finally, making a union arbitration procedure available to student workers and not others is inconsistent with the requirement for an equitable process under federal Title IX regulations.

Academic Judgment

We also continue to have concerns about HGSU-UAW’s demand to have the right to take disagreements over grades and the assessment of academic achievement (e.g., oral and cumulative exams) to a grievance and arbitration process, if they feel the assessment was retaliatory in nature. There is no question that retaliation is unacceptable at Harvard. It is prohibited by law and by University policy. However, the determination that a grade was altered as an act of retaliation requires an academic judgment about what the grade should have been. We do not believe that an arbitrator will have the expertise to make such a judgment, which is made all the more challenging in the specialized areas that are common in graduate education. In the University’s view, such encroachments on the academic responsibilities of faculty are not acceptable.

Strike Authorization

Although a strike is the prerogative of the union, it will neither clarify our respective positions nor will it resolve areas of disagreement. During a strike, the University has a responsibility to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to complete their academic work. Faculty (and staff) are free to support the union’s goals, but they also must fulfill their academic responsibilities to their students, just as students must fulfill their academic requirements and continue to make progress toward their degrees.

Across the University, we continue to put in place contingency plans for a potential strike with provisions for administering and grading exams as the semester draws to a close. Much of this guidance is available online, but if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your Department Chairs or School leadership. It is important to recognize that student workers should not expect to be paid for work that isn’t performed. And, in instances where a student worker is funded through federal research dollars or other sponsored research gifts, we are obligated to track work to ensure that we comply with federal regulations and grant terms.

The University appreciates the vital role that our student workers play in fulfilling Harvard’s teaching and research mission. Across Harvard, student workers contribute to groundbreaking research and to the academic experience and achievement of all students. It is with deep appreciation for their efforts that we remain committed to addressing the concerns that have been raised during these negotiations. We very much hope that through ongoing good faith efforts of HGSU-UAW and the University, we can reach a reasonable resolution that enables our students to be successful and thrive.


Alan M. Garber AB '77, PhD '82
Harvard University