Resources for students

Other frequently asked questions

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.


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.

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

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).

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