December 3, 2019
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Slogging through snow showers and slush, hundreds of Harvard University graduate student workers picketed Tuesday at Harvard Yard, as thousands went on strike seeking higher pay and other demands.
It marked the first strike of graduate students on the Ivy League campus since 1973, when teaching fellows and protested the university’s financial aid program. Dining hall workers staged a one-month walk-out in 2016.
The strike threatened some of the university’s educational operations before final exams. The school’s more than 4,000 graduate student employees include teacher assistants, teaching fellows, tutors and researchers at Harvard’s many labs and academic departments.
“What’s up? Time’s up!” they chanted, circling the office of Harvard President Lawrence Bacow as they marched the perimeter of Harvard Yard, some holding signs and megaphones.
Leaders of the union representing the graduate student workers, which formed in April 2018 as part of United Automobile Workers, said the school hasn’t agreed to a contract that ensures “basic rights and protections.” Tuesday was the union’s deadline before a vowed indefinite strike.
Union members want a collective bargaining agreement with several guarantees: a $25 minimum wage for hourly workers; expanded health care benefits including mental health coverage; and stronger protections against sexual harassment and discrimination with a new arbitration process for complaints. Talks with Harvard officials, which included 28 bargaining sessions, went on for more than a year.
“The university has not responded to any of our demands around our core issues,” said Ege Yumusak, 26, a third-year graduate student and teaching assistant in the philosophy department who sits on the union’s bargaining committee. “This is why we are striking today after trying many other actions.”
The strike follows employee work stoppages at other college and universities this year. They include service workers at the University of California and nurses at the University of Chicago. The threat of a strike by employees of Oregon’s seven public universities was averted in September.
Harvard said negotiations are “active and ongoing.” The two sides, which have agreed on 12 points, met Monday and exchanged additional proposals but left without a contract. It’s unclear how many of the 4,000 graduate student workers walked out to join the strike, however 2,425 voted to do so six weeks ago.
Jason Newton, a spokesman for Harvard, said the university remains engaged in negotiations and continues to feel a strike is “unwarranted.” He said the school will take steps to ensure “as little disruption as possible” as students prepare for exams in the final weeks of the fall semester.
“Student workers have an vital role in fulfilling Harvard’s teaching and research mission, and with that in mind, the University is committed to addressing concerns that have been raised throughout this process,” he said. “A strike will neither clarify our respective positions nor will it resolve areas of disagreement.”
‘A mental health crisis on campus,’ union says
Newton said Harvard has made proposals that are “responsive to concerns” over pay and benefits.
Harvard’s latest proposal would raise the minimum hourly pay rate to $15 for non-salaried student workers and $17 for hourly instructional workers. The rates would increase by 5% in years two and three of the contract, but the union has pushed for a 5% increase after year one and 3.5% in subsequent years.
Yumusak said some university workers are making just over $12 an hour for research work. She called that “unacceptable” and said greater “pay stability” with guaranteed raises is needed for salaried workers.
“The cost of living is increasing in this area and we have no guaranteed raises right now as students,” she said.
Harvard has proposed new health benefits that include greater coverage for spouses, child care assistance, unpaid maternity and paternity leave up to 12 months, and up-front stipends for work travel, among other improvements.
But Yumusak pointed to coverage for mental health care as a sticking point in talks.
“There’s a mental health crisis on campus,” she said, adding it currently costs graduate student workers thousands of dollars to see therapists regularly. “A lot of us are working in incredibly toxic work environments and we see people suffering from depression and anxiety and going without treatment.”
As for employment protections, Yumusak said an impartial third-party arbitrator is needed for complaints to prevent the university from continuing “to sweep harassment and discrimination under the rug, which is what we’re seeing right now.”
In July, Harvard suspended Roland Fryer Jr., a celebrated economics professor, and shut down his research lab permanently in response to multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
Newton said the union’s proposed labor arbitration process for harassment and discrimination would not meet federal regulations under Title IX, which outlines the current process to field complaints.
He cited other concerns, including the union’s demands to negotiate financial aid based on academic status rather than working status and the terms of a health care plan, which Newton said would affect all students, not just graduate workers.
Unless the university budges, however, graduate students say they’ll remain on strike.
“We’ll be picking 8:30 to 5:30 for the rest of the week,” Yumusak said.