The union difference: Why a union?

What is a union?
HGSU-UAW is an organization of student workers joining together to build power, create a democratic workplace, negotiate improvements to our working conditions and secure our benefits in a binding contract that cannot be unilaterally changed by the university administration.
What do we gain with a union?
Voice. Unions give graduate workers a meaningful voice in how the university operates. In an era of academic corporatization and the increasing reliance on contingent researchers and teachers over tenured faculty, student worker unions give us a powerful voice in shaping our working conditions as well as the future of academic work and the university as a whole.
Security. A union contract will protect our benefits and working conditions from unilateral changes by the university administration. At present, the administration can change the policies that affect student workers without even consulting us–for example, in 2016 they changed our health insurance plan, raising a number of copays, without asking students how it would affect them. Once our conditions are protected by a union contract, the administration will have to negotiate with us about any changes it wishes to make.
Community. By organizing, we join tens of thousands of graduate workers, postdoctoral researchers and adjuncts working across the country to win dignity and respect for all academic workers. From the beginning we have been working to forge relationships across departments and disciplines and build a Harvard where graduate students join together.
Power. Collective bargaining allows us to negotiate with the university administration as equals. Right now, the administration makes decisions about us unilaterally. A union will give us a seat at the table where we can fight for the benefits we need, shape conversations about the university’s future, and ensure our contribution to Harvard is properly compensated and respected.
How does a union give us a voice?

We will democratically determine our priorities and leaders.

  • First, we will elect graduate workers to a bargaining committee.
  • Then, we will fill out bargaining surveys that tell the bargaining committee we’ve chosen what matters to us.
  • The committee will develop an initial bargaining agenda, which we will then vote to ratify.
  • The bargaining committee will then sit down with the administration to negotiate. Once they reach a ‘tentative agreement’, members will vote whether to approve that agreement as our first contract.
  • If we ratify the contract, we will then elect leaders to run our union and to help ensure that our contract is enforced.
Why the UAW?
Student workers typically choose to organize with a larger labor union, sometimes called an “international,” such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The UAW began as an auto workers union in the 1930s, but in recent decades workers in service industries and non-profits, as well as teaching, administrative, and research staff at numerous universities, have joined as well.
  The UAW now represents more than 60,000 academic workers across the US, including student workers at NYU, the University of California system, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Washington. By organizing with the UAW, we become full voting members of this larger union and gain access to its experience with student workers and its significant resources. We also join the millions of unionized workers across the country who make up the American labor movement. All these strengths help us build the strongest possible union and win the best possible contract.

Union membership

Will I have to pay union dues? How much do I pay?
Members are required to pay dues, which help to pay for the staff, experts and other resources that make sure we can negotiate a strong contract with the administration and enforce it effectively. However, we pay no dues until we have ratified our first contract. This means that we won’t pay anything until we see the benefits of having a union.
  UAW dues are currently 1.44% of gross income from the work covered by our contract, and will only be paid by those members employed as TFs, RAs, or in other positions covered by the union. Some union locals, like the local in which NYU’s student employees are members, choose to pay a higher dues rate if they feel they need the extra resources. Any rate higher than the UAW standard must be voted on by local membership.
  Typically all workers in a bargaining unit are required to pay dues or some type of agency fee. All workers will benefit from the same union contract, and the union is obligated to represent all workers and enforce the contract on their behalf, regardless of membership.
How is the dues money allocated? What are dues for?

Dues cover the day-to-day cost of having a strong union. Beyond the cost of negotiating and enforcing our contract, dues also cover the costs of legal representation (which won the recent NLRB case), staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies. Because most of this work is done by our local union, half of our dues money is retained by our local. The remainder is allocated to the International Union (18%) and the Strike and Defense Fund (32%), which gives us leverage at the bargaining table. Dues also pay for:

Technical support for contract negotiations:

  • Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
    • Researchers who can help analyze University finances.
    • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals in bargaining, both at the bargaining table and developing an overall contract campaign
  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the organizing staff and legal support for the HGSU-UAW campaign is paid for by existing UAW members’ dues money)
  • Political action: 3% of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. (NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.)
Will I have to join the union?
No one is required to join the union, though one benefit of doing so includes being able to vote for union officers and for the local’s bylaws. By law, the union is obligated to enforce contracts for all workers in the bargaining unit, members and non-members alike. If our first contract includes dental insurance for all student workers, you will receive that insurance even if you chose not to join the union, and if the university suddenly took away your dental insurance, the union will still have to use its resources to fight for your benefits. Because of this, non-members typically pay an agency fee close to the dues amount paid by union members.
Will I have to go on strike? Will it negatively impact the progress of my research?
98% of union contracts are reached without a strike. Although it is rarely necessary, striking is an important and powerful last resort when an employer persistently refuses to negotiate in good faith or take harmful positions. When other options for bringing an employer to the bargaining table have been exhausted, a strike is a powerful way to remind employers and the public of the importance of our work. Members of the union will, by voting, decide if a strike is necessary. Under the UAW constitution, 2/3 of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote in favor of a strike in order to authorize the union to call one. While a strike is most effective when we all stand together, it is up to individual members whether to go on strike, and the UAW does not fine members who do not participate.
  Strikes may include both teachings and research assistants. At the University of Washington’s student worker union, for instance, RAs fortunately have not had to strike, but several times they have begun preparations for a strike to achieve a fair contract. As part of such preparations, RAs engaged in discussions to figure out how best to participate in a strike without damaging their own academic progress. If the members of our union were to democratically contemplate a strike one day, we would sort through the same set of issues as well.
How is a union different from the Graduate Student Council or other graduate student governments GSC?
Graduate student governments represent and support Harvard students as students: they fund student groups, award grants, sponsor events, and communicate student concerns to university administrators. However, these groups are not labor organizations: they have no power to negotiate a binding contract on behalf of student workers, and the administration is under no obligation to act on any recommendations or requests that the GSC might make.
Are graduate employees being paid to build our union?
Yes. Building and maintaining our union is a lot of work, and we believe people should be paid for their work. Paid organizing positions are available for those able to put a significant amount of time into the union (20+ hours / week). Once we begin paying dues, we will hire our own staff to help enforce our contract. Because we are not currently paying dues, hundreds of thousands of UAW members from across the country are paying for our organizing campaign and helping us win a real voice at Harvard.
If the union wins more benefits for student employees, won’t Harvard have to make cuts elsewhere?
There is no record of cuts being made as a result of unionization at any of the many universities where graduates have exercised their right to collective bargaining. But more importantly: as graduate students, we want Harvard to continue to excel. A union will help us ensure it does so by giving us a real role in setting the university’s institutional priorities and in helping to determine where its resources go. During bargaining, we’ll get access to the university’s finances and be able to see for ourselves how Harvard’s money is being spent. Harvard’s endowment made about $2 billion last year, and decisions about how to spend that money were made in secret, without the input of the thousands of graduate teachers and researchers who keep Harvard running. With a union, we’ll be able to have a real conversation with the administration about how the university’s money should be budgeted and make informed decisions about what benefits we want to push for.
Can the union make any guarantees about specific improvements?
We can’t guarantee any specific improvements in our contract. We can guarantee that a union will empower us to negotiate as equals with the administration for what we want. Student workers at other universities have been able to use this power to win significant, specific improvements in their working conditions and benefits. Like any contract, a union contract must be negotiated, and that means that we can’t be certain that any specific policies or improvements will be included. What we do know is that a union will give us the power to make those improvements.
  We can also guarantee that a contract will secure those improvements against administrative tampering. At present the administration changes policies and benefits unilaterally, without any obligation to consult those affected, as it has this year by raising copays in our healthcare plan. Our contract will be a legally enforceable document that will guarantee our benefits and conditions of employment, ensuring that the administration cannot change our benefits without negotiating with us.
  A union also guarantees us the right to vote on our contract. If we are unsatisfied with a contract, we can vote against it and go back to the negotiating table to work out a better agreement. Ultimately, our vote on that contract ensures that we will have a contract that we’ve democratically approved.
Will having a union mean all departments must follow the same policies?
Our contract can be as detailed as we want it to be. If something is working well in your department, there’s no need to change it! And if a certain policy would be helpful for certain jobs but doesn’t make sense for other jobs, our contract can stipulate the policy applies or does not apply to certain jobs, like Teaching Fellow or Course Assistant or HLS BSA or lab RA. We believe that student workers themselves know best whether a given policy is good or bad for them–that’s why we believe they should have the right to negotiate with the administration about those policies.
Will having a union mean that students can’t work in other positions, like resident tutor or resident proctor?
The university employs students as resident tutors and proctors because they need those jobs done. Having a union for students who work as teachers and researchers will not change that need nor the eligibility or desirability for graduate students to fill those roles. Moreover, we will be bargaining collectively to improve our conditions as teachers and researchers, not the other jobs we might work or positions we might hold.

Who’s eligible to be in the union?

Which workers would be represented by HGSU-UAW?
We represent all graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard who provide teaching services (i.e. Teaching Fellows, Teaching Assistants, or Course Assistants), as well as all graduate students who work as Research Assistants, regardless of funding source. Only undergraduate students at Harvard College working as research assistants are not included in the bargaining unit.
  This is the same bargaining unit used at Columbia University in the recent NLRB decision.
Are undergraduates included in the union?
Yes. The Columbia NLRB decision gave undergraduates an opportunity to join in the union. Joining a union as an undergraduate is nothing new – there are undergraduate workers represented by unions across the country. By joining with a larger community like the graduate workers, we combine our power as a union. The undergraduate student workers at the University of Washington have fought for and won higher wages, better working conditions, and served as advocates for larger issues like affordable tuition and a more diverse faculty.
I’m a Masters student worker. Am I eligible to join the union? Why should I when I’m only at Harvard for a year or two?
Yes! If you are teaching or working as a research assistant, you are eligible to join the union. While you are here for a shorter period of time, Masters student-workers face similar concerns while working that doctoral students face. For example, Masters student-workers have raised concerns around workload protections, inadequate teaching training, and a lack of a robust grievance procedure should the need arise. By joining the union, you add your voice to such issues, protect the benefits you like in a contract, and build power by joining a larger community here at Harvard working to create a more democratic workplace.
Can international students participate in the union?
Absolutely! Anyone working in the United States has the right to join a union. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to belong to a union that represents you in a U.S. workplace. In fact, international graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and leading unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US, and no graduate employee union has reported any complications among their member employees who are also international students. If anything, international students face particular vulnerabilities that can be best addressed through a union, such as the protections of a grievance procedure.
I am graduating, why should I join?
You have seen firsthand both the challenges of working as a student employee and that which may have worked well during your time here at Harvard. The question to ask yourself is: “If I had a voice in how things are run here, could I make it better?” If the answer is yes, then supporting a union will give the future student employees here at Harvard that exact opportunity. Your support can ensure we can improve our working conditions while protecting what we like.

The legal process

How do we form a Union?

There are two possible routes to our union: the university administration can agree to a free and fair process for holding a union election, or we can seek certification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under either scenario, building and maintaining strong majority support among graduate student workers will drive the success of our campaign and make our union more democratic and representative.Our organizing campaign can be broken down into these broad steps:

1) Establish a representative organizing committee. This is made up of leaders from every department who will help organize the union. Members of the organizing committee answer questions, get the word out, build support, and help make strategic decisions about forming our union. The names of many organizing committee members appear at the bottom of every HGSU-UAW authorization card.

2) Establish a supermajority of support. To build support for the union, we collect signed union authorization cards from graduate workers across all Harvard campuses. These cards establish the level of support for the union. In addition, they provide a means of gathering up-to-date contact and work information from graduate workers who support the union. These cards are ultimately used in the NLRB certification process (see below).

3)(a) Demand for recognition. Once our supermajority is established, we will approach the administration and demand they agree to a fair process for certifying our union. They will have the opportunity to recognize our right to form a union. Graduate workers took this approach at NYU in 2013, resulting in a 98.4% “Yes” vote in their union election.

3)(b) Petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If the university administration is unwilling to agree to a fair process for establishing our union, we will petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency responsible for certifying unions. We will deliver our signed authorization cards to the board, which will compare them to a list of eligible workers provided by the university. If a minimum proportion of workers have signed authorization cards, the board will schedule an election. The administration might fight our right to form a union by filing various objections with the NLRB; if so, the board may hold hearings. These hearings could delay our election somewhat, but in general the rules governing NLRB hearings are designed to to move to an election as quickly as possible.

4) Election. All eligible workers will be able to cast a vote on unionization. If a majority of the graduate workers who vote do so in favor, our union will be certified.

5) Election of Bargaining Committee. Once our union is certified, we will elect our bargaining committee. This committee will consist of graduate workers from Harvard, elected by the membership, who are willing to take on the substantial commitment of helping to negotiate our first contract Any worker who has signed a union authorization card can run, and will be eligible to vote, andany graduate worker can sign a card at any time.

6) Collect Bargaining Surveys. The bargaining committee will survey the membership about what they want to see in a contract. This is an opportunity for all workers to describe the changes they would like to see in their working conditions and compensation, as well as to emphasize which current aspects of their work that they would like protected.

7) Vote to Accept Bargaining Goals. Based on bargaining survey responses, the bargaining committee will create a list of broad bargaining goals. These goals must then be ratified by a vote of the membership.

8) Negotiate a contract. With the priorities established in the bargaining survey, the committee will bargain a contract with the administration.

9) Vote on Tentative Agreement. The bargaining committee will negotiate a draft contract, called a “tentative agreement,” with the administration. The membership will then vote on the agreement. If we vote to accept it, then we have our first contract. If we choose to reject it, then the bargaining committee will return to the negotiating table.

10) Union Dues. Graduate workers only begin to pay union dues after we have voted to accept our first union contract.

11) Enforcement, Election of Officers, Establish Local Union. Once we have our first contract in place, we will elect our officers and stewards, whose responsibility is to enforce our contract. We will also vote on a set of bylaws which will determine how we govern our local and how we spend our dues.

Can student workers form unions?
Yes! We always have the right to organize to improve our working conditions. Moreover, in August the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) restored the right of student workers to form unions at private universities.
Was the NLRB the only option?
No. Harvard could have chosen to voluntarily recognize our union when we have a majority of graduate employees showing support for the union by signing authorization cards. In exchange for withdrawing a petition before the NLRB, student workers at New York University received voluntary recognition of their union from the NYU administration. In their December 2013 vote, 98.4% of NYU graduates’ ballots cast were in favor of a union. Although the university was not required by law to recognize the union and negotiate a contract, the administration chose to do so because graduates strongly supported unionization and continued to take action to make the university respect their decision to unionize.
When is our union election, and where can I vote?
Our election has been scheduled for November 16th and 17th, 2016. Polls will be open each day from 10am to 2:30pm and 4:30pm to 8pm. Polling locations are yet to be finalized, but we work with the Board to ensure that these locations are optimally convenient for all student employees. Once polling locations are finalized, you will be notified of your polling station.
Who is eligible to vote?
In accordance with the NLRB’s Columbia decision, all student employees included in the bargaining unit (undergraduate and graduate teaching fellows, teaching assistants, and course assistants, as well as graduate research assistants) may vote in the election. In addition, graduate student employees who are not currently working but have worked within the last academic year and have not yet taken a dissertation completion fellowship may vote subject to challenge. There is a legal process that will address the status of these ballots, but in all cases the legal right to a secret ballot will be maintained.
If you have any questions about your eligibility to vote, please contact us at We will gladly answer any questions you have.

How will our internal union democracy work?

What are the rules governing the size and makeup of our Bargaining Committee?
As members of the union, we elect our representatives on the bargaining committee and also determine its size and composition. Most memberships balance a need for a committee of a manageable size and one that represents the variety of programs they belong to across the university. For example, the bargaining committee at the University of Connecticut had six members: one each from Engineering, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, and two from the Sciences. The grad union at the University of California chose to have two committee members per campus.
Who would be eligible to participate in the contract ratification vote?
For our first contract vote, those student workers in the bargaining unit who have signed union authorization cards would be eligible.
What are the rules governing how the union is run?
The UAW has an international constitution,which is democratically amended every four years at a constitutional convention. This constitution outlines the basic democratic structure of the union. In addition, once our union is recognized, we will create a voluntary committee to take responsibility to drafting our local’s bylaws–the internal rules and procedures that govern the operation of our local. Once completed, members of the local will have the opportunity to vote to ratify the bylaws or send them back for changes. Modifications to the bylaws, once ratified, can be made by membership vote.
What are union bylaws?
All unions have by-laws which lay out how the union is governed. Once our union is recognized, we will create a voluntary Bylaws committee to take responsibility to drafting our bylaws. Once completed, the members of the local will have the opportunity to vote to accept the bylaws, also called ratifying them, or send them back for changes. Modifications to the bylaws, once ratified, can be made by membership vote.
I heard the UAW struck down a vote endorsing BDS by the University of California graduate employee union. Why?
Positions on major political issues are set by the UAW International Executive Board (IEB), since the union represents and has to balance the interests of hundreds of locals and 400,000 individual members across the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. When the local UC union voted to endorse BDS, a member of their local appealed the vote claiming that, among other reasons, the vote exceeded the local’s authority under the democratic structure of the UAW Constitution. Since only about 2,000 members, out of 400,000, have voted to support BDS, the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) and, subsequently, an independent review board unique to the UAW agreed that the vote exceeded the local’s authority.
How does the UAW define democracy on issues like BDS?

Much of the appeal of the BDS vote in California revolved around interpretation of the Ethical Practices Code (EPC), a key component of the UAW Constitution that codifies the Union’s intent to promote internal democracy while also attempting to balance the interests of ALL members of the Union. The key passage is the following:

“Each member shall be entitled to a full share in Union self-government … In a democratic union, as in a democratic society, every member has certain rights but s/he also must accept certain corresponding obligations. Each member shall have the right freely to criticize the policies and personalities of Union officials; however, this does not include the right to undermine the Union as an institution; to vilify other members of the Union and its elected officials or to carry on activities with complete disregard of the rights of other members and the interests of the Union; to subvert the Union in collective bargaining or to advocate or engage in dual unionism.”
The UAW definition of democracy also encompasses a commitment, in Article 2 of the Constitution, to further “the improvement of general economic and social conditions in the United States of America, Canada, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and generally in the nations of the world.”

The UAW is unique in the US labor movement in that it allows appeals like the one from the member in California to go to the independent PRB, so that a neutral party decides whether the UAW has followed its own democratic procedures.

I heard that UMass Amherst and UC Santa Barbara were both placed in administratorship, meaning the UAW international took control of the local. What happened there?

Like in any democratic organization, disagreements sometimes happen within the UAW. In the late 1990s, there were some internal disputes at UMass and at UC Santa Barbara. Fortunately, the UAW has democratic structures in place to address such disagreements and to ensure the rights of all members. In 2004, as the anti-union campaign raised questions about these events in the lead-up to a unionization vote at the University of Washington, members from UMass and UCSB addressed the situation. You can read their comments below.

February 29, 2004
“I am a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the President of UAW Local 2322, the union that represents graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Our union was recognized in 1991 and has bargained six contracts since that time. We have been able to negotiate dramatic improvements for our members on wages, healthcare, childcare, and other issues.
As you move closer to your election you may hear negative things about the UAW at UMass.
There were problems in the local in the past. People in the local couldn’t resolve their disputes, and some democratic practices were not being followed. But the UAW, the larger organization that we are part of, didn’t let that situation disintegrate. At the request of members of our local, a UAW staff member assisted us in getting things back on track by allowing our democratically elected leadership to take charge. At the time I was skeptical of the role that the UAW staff might play, but I have to say that it was the best thing for the local. The future of Local 2322 is bright. We have had a number of great accomplishments recently – a new contract and organizing victories for more campus workers. I want to encourage you to vote yes in your election and look forward to welcoming you into the UAW.”
James A.W. Shaw
President Local 2322 United Auto Workers
Northampton, MA

February 28, 2004
“We are the current elected UC Santa Barbara leadership of UAW Local 2865. We urge the ASEs at University of Washington to vote yes for GSEAC/UAW in your upcoming election. We are proud to be members of the UAW.
Like most democratic organizations, we have had some internal disagreements. In the late 1990’s a small group at our campus disagreed over bargaining goals and strategies. The group, including some of the elected bargaining team members, wanted to have the right to strike over grievances, in addition to the remedy of binding arbitration, in the contract. This was not a position supported by the Santa Barbara membership in bargaining surveys or organizing contacts, nor by the rest of the elected bargaining teams and members at UC’s seven other campuses. The Santa Barbara bargaining team members resigned over this disagreement. The contract was subsequently ratified by all UC campuses, including Santa Barbara. Since then, we and elected leadership at the other seven UC campuses have negotiated a second contract, also ratified by members at all campuses.”
Brian Campbell, UCSB Campus Unit Chair, UAW Local 2865, Geological Sciences
Nina Kilham, UCSB Campus Recording Secretary, UAW Local 2865, Geography
Susie Keller, UCSB Campus Head Steward, UAW Local 2865, English

With so many diverse programs, how can we be sure the bargaining committee will represent all RAs and TAs?
First, and most importantly, RAs and TAs share many common interests. For example, health care, family benefits, pay increases, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment, time off for vacation or other reasons, tuition and fee waivers, timely payment for work performed, protection against last-minute loss of appointments, international student rights, and a fair grievance procedure affect RAs and TAs all across campus and are typically central issues in contract negotiations regardless of who is on the bargaining committee.
Second, RAs and TAs will get to vote democratically to approve not only the initial bargaining goals prior to negotiations but also the final contract negotiated by the committee, which encourages democratic accountability. In the recent University of California postdoc contract campaign, the most recent UAW academic example, a majority of all 6,200 postdocs voted in favor of the bargaining committee’s initial demands, which were based on extensive surveys, and voted to accept the final contract.
In electing our bargaining committee, we plan to follow the example of other graduate unions in the UAW that have tended to balance a need for a committee that is manageable in size and still representative of discipline, job title, etc. At NYU and UConn, several meetings were held soon after official union recognition to work out the size of the bargaining committee. At UConn, they ended up electing six committee members who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, all the major disciplines on campus. The contract they negotiated increased stipends; resulted in a new, and significantly improved, healthcare program; improved workload protections; reduced fees; included protections from discrimination; and, included provisions for job security. When the final agreement was put to a vote, the majority of the membership participated and the vote was overwhelming – 99% voted in favor of the contract.
We will do the same—soon after the election, we will hold meetings to determine the size and composition of the committee. While we have examples from other universities, we will have to figure out what will work best at Harvard.

What can we gain with a union?

I feel like my working conditions are pretty good. Why do I need a union?
Many student employees are happy with aspects of our working conditions and benefits right now. But because we don’t have a contract, the administration can change the policies that affect us at any time, without consulting student employees, and without giving us any recourse. Just this past year the administration raised student health insurance copays and increased our contribution to the plan. Without a union, we have no security and no seat at the table when decisions affecting our lives and work are made by administrators. With a union we get to negotiate a contract that will protect the benefits we like and secure improvements in areas where we would like to see progress.
How will unionization affect my relationship with my advisor/PI?
In the decades during which student workers at campuses across the country have had unions, there’s been no evidence that collective bargaining has a negative impact on relationships between students and their advisors. Peer-reviewed studies have suggested positive effects for grad unions on student/faculty relationships. By giving graduate students real power and a direct channel to the administration, our union will allow our advisors to focus on research and mentoring their graduate students rather than on dealing with employment issues like health care, timely payment, and parental leave. Our union will allow us to join the faculty holding administrators accountable and prioritizing the university’s core mission of research, scholarship, and teaching. No graduate employee would support contract provisions that might harm the work or research of our PIs. Our bargaining surveys set our priorities, and all union members get to ratify our bargaining agenda. Our union’s democratic process ensures that our contract will protect both our interests and the research of our PIs and labs. Academic success and a thriving research enterprise are top priorities for all graduate employees, and we can make sure we negotiate a contract that reflects our priorities.
Funding for my research assistantship comes from an external grant. How can we negotiate over that?
Currently, Harvard administrators determine RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are then factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we’ll be able to negotiate over those pay rates. Grant-funded RAs at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining.
If I am on an external grant, can I be covered by the union?
Absolutely. A number of NYU’s students on external grants are covered by the union, and Columbia’s graduate union’s petition before the NLRB argues that grant-funded graduate workers should be included in their bargaining unit. At Harvard, graduate employees from every department and campus are joining the union to have a voice in their working conditions and help make a healthy Harvard.
What sorts of benefits and protections can we achieve through collective bargaining?

Winning a contract through collective bargaining means having a legally enforceable document that guarantees our conditions of employment. Those benefits cannot be changed unilaterally by the university without negotiating with our union. Here are some examples of what we stand to win by bargaining:

  • Annual, across-the-board stipend increases and timely payments.
  • Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance(including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions).
  • Improved family benefits, such as dependent health coverage, child-care subsidies and paid maternity leave.
  • Workload protections that enhance the quality of research and education.
  • Vacation and sick leave for research assistants.
  • Subsidized public transportation services.
  • Protections against discriminatory practices sexual harassment and assault.
  • Improved disability access and resources for people of color.
  • A fair and transparent grievance procedure.
What have student workers unions achieved at other universities?
  • In March 2015, GSOC-UAW at NYU ratified a new contract with 99% approval. Their gains include a 4% wage increase with annual minimum increases, matriculation and other fees waived for student employees, a 90% subsidy for individual health care coverage, free dental insurance, a family healthcare fund that will rise to $200,000, and a tax-free childcare fund that will rise to $100,000.
  • In April 2015, the GEU-UAW at the University of Connecticut won their first contract with 99% voter approval. Their gains include a 9.3% compound wage increase over three years, restored access to state employee health benefits that were taken away in 2003, and nearly $900 per year in mandatory fee waivers (almost a 5% additional wage increase) as well as travel reimbursement, child care subsidies and six weeks of paid maternity leave.
  • In May 2015, graduate workers at the University of Washington won a contract guaranteeing child care subsidy increases, tuition and fee waivers, minimum annual wage increases, and workload protections for hourly employees. Collective bargaining has won major gains over the past decade, including no cuts in health care since 2004 despite the cost of the plan increasing almost 50%.
  • After an eight-day strike in 2014 (the first in 38 years), the University of Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows won a contract with a 10% wage increase, two weeks of paid family or medical leave, and a $150,000 “hardship fund” awarding grants for family and medical emergencies. In October they vote to ratify a new three-year contract awarding 10.7% wage increases and paid employment training.
  • In 2014, the student-workers union at the University of California ratified a new contract that won a two-week increase in paid leave for childbirth (enabling a full three-month benefited maternity leave on quarter campuses, so mothers don’t have to take quarters off with no pay or benefits), a 50% increase in child care subsidies, 17% compounded wage increases over four years, new protections for workload intensity, undocumented students, and gender inclusivity, and full remission of tuition and registration fees for union members.
  • Since 2007, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago have campaigned for and won a doubling of teaching assistant salaries, better standards of care at the Student Care Center, and the right for students on parental leave to retain their student status, allowing the retention of visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities.

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