Union 101

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 National Labor Relations Board, 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. 

HGSU-UAW bargaining unit membership
 

The official definition of the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit is as follows:

Included:

“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)...”

Excluded:

"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.

Negotiations

The University’s primary goal is to ensure that any provisions established in an initial contract make sense and are fair, taking into account the interests of the University and all of its students, including the approximately 4,000 student workers represented by HGSU-UAW. Learn more about the negotiations, including details on the University's bargaining positions.

NLRB proposed rule

The University is currently reviewing the proposed rule to assess its implications on the ongoing negotiations with HGSU. In the meantime, negotiations are continuing and bargaining sessions are already on the calendar for the weeks ahead.

Frequently asked questions

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... Read more about What is a union?

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...

Read more about What other universities currently have a student labor union contract?

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...

Read more about How does a union gain recognition to represent a certain group of workers?

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...

Read more about Once a union has been established, is there a process to remove the union?

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:

Included:

“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...

Read more about Who is included in Harvard Graduate Student Union–United Auto Workers bargaining unit?

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).

Who pays for an arbitrator?

Normally, the fees paid to the arbitrator are split between the union and the employer. Each pays 50% of the arbitrator’s fees and expenses. 

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. 

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.

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.