Update on Student Union Negotiations

April 16, 2019

I write to update you on the ongoing negotiations between the University and the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). The three principles I noted when these bargaining sessions began in October remain foundational to the University’s approach to the negotiations: 1) we must protect the integrity of our teaching mission, 2) we must protect the academic freedom that undergirds our research mission, and 3) the University must serve all of its students, in every School and academic program – from degree programs to executive and continuing education.

We approached the negotiations knowing that first agreements take time. First contract negotiations at other universities have taken 12-18 months to complete, even with much smaller and more narrowly defined student worker bargaining units. Here at Harvard, over the last six months, we have held more than 24 bargaining meetings with HGSU-UAW, including formal bargaining sessions (which average nearly five hours each), side meetings on specific topics, and subcommittee meetings.

A great deal of additional work occurs between these meetings as members of the University bargaining team consult with faculty and staff in each of our 12 Schools. Because the proposed articles would affect every School and Department at Harvard, analyzing their impacts requires time and thorough consideration. With some 40 detailed proposals having been put on the table, we have reached tentative agreements on four articles. We are making substantial progress on several more. Both sides have made numerous counter proposals and there is still considerable work to be done.

In particular, it is challenging to disentangle work, which is the basis for these negotiations, from academic activity, which is not. As the National Labor Relations Board has acknowledged, the dividing line between student employment and academic work is often unclear. For example, while we can and will bargain about protection from excessive workload expectations, we cannot agree to articles that would expand student workers’ time to degree or allow grievances over faculty judgments on academic progress.

We are also concerned that some of the Union’s proposals would not be effective and might even have unintended consequences. For example, the HGSU-UAW has continued to highlight its proposals concerning the Title IX policy and procedures as well as other aspects of discrimination and harassment. The Union’s approach would create a separate set of adversarial processes for HGSU-UAW members, implying that those not in the Union, including faculty and staff, accused of sexual harassment by Union members would be subject to the Union process. Certainly there is work to be done, but all of us at Harvard – not only the roughly 5,000 members of this bargaining unit – need to participate in creating the kind of community that we aspire to be. The University has a Title IX Policy Review Advisory Committee, comprising faculty, students, and staff from across all of our Schools, charged with making recommendations for changes to our policy and procedures. The Union has been invited to have representation on this committee. Behind the efforts of this committee is a commitment to creating a welcoming, healthy, and safe environment where every student and every other member of the Harvard community can be successful.

The HGSU-UAW has put forward a number of proposals covering benefits for student workers, and just a few weeks ago, the Union put its compensation proposal on the table. A team of University staff has analyzed the potential financial impact of these economic proposals on academic programs within each School, and it would be significant. According to preliminary estimates, University expenditures per graduate student would approximately double under the Union’s proposals. Were the University to agree to these proposals, there would likely be direct consequences for the number of graduate students who could be supported. The University put forth its response to the HGSU-UAW economic proposals yesterday, so we anticipate the economic proposals will be a primary focus of the negotiations in the coming weeks.

Recognizing the complexities of negotiating this first bargaining agreement, we will take appropriate care to ensure that the consequences of each provision are fully understood. This is new territory for the University. No other labor negotiation that we have undertaken has had this combination of academic and employment considerations. However, I am confident that, working with the HGSU-UAW, we can reach a fair and workable agreement that appropriately addresses the student workers’ employment-related concerns, respects our commitments to other University constituents, and maintains the integrity of the University’s academic mission.


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