In August 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed prior decisions and ruled that undergraduate and graduate students who serve in compensated teaching and research capacities at private universities are considered employees for the purposes of collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

On April 18-19, 2018, Harvard students serving in certain research and teaching positions cast votes to determine whether or not to be represented by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). Of the 5,048 individuals who were eligible to vote in the election, 1,931 students (56% of voters) cast ballots for representation by the HGSU-UAW, while 1,523 (44% of voters) voted against representation. 1,594 eligible voters did not cast ballots in the election.

These results, which were certified by the NLRB, mean that HGSU-UAW is now the sole channel through which students in covered positions have a say on wages, benefits, appointments, work hours, and work conditions. This represents a significant departure from the way that these issues have been handled by the University until now, since each school’s dean and other University leaders are now legally prohibited from working directly with individual students or with student government on these matters.


In light of the outcome of the vote and the existing NLRB precedent, Harvard began contract negotiations in October 2018 with HGSU-UAW and does so in good-faith, guided by its fundamental commitments as an academic institution. As Provost Garber has stated, there are three fundamental principles that will guide Harvard’s approach:

First, Harvard University must protect the integrity of our teaching mission. The University, across its diverse schools and programs, is dedicated to providing the best possible education to our students, both graduate and undergraduate. Decisions such as who is admitted, how teaching occurs, and who teaches, are academic judgments to be made by the University. Harvard is not under any obligation to negotiate with the United Auto Workers about academic matters, and will not do so, and it will not agree to terms that compromise our educational mission.

Second, the University must protect the academic freedom that undergirds our research mission. Harvard researchers deepen our understanding of the human condition and the world around us, promote the flourishing of the arts, introduce lifesaving medical breakthroughs, and improve societies and organizations. Research is a collaborative endeavor of students, faculty, and staff. In order to play their role effectively, faculty must be able to exercise their responsibility to manage and oversee matters relating to research. Within a context of mutual respect, academic freedom is essential to our faculty’s ability to advance knowledge.

Third, the University must serve all of its students, in every school and academic program. Approximately 22,000 students are enrolled at Harvard in any given year. The union will represent one-fifth of them – those who hold teaching and research positions that current NLRB rulings deem to be covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Harvard will continue to uphold its responsibility to every student, both those who are represented by the union and those who are not.