Six Arguments

Here are my six arguments against the unionization of graduate students at Harvard.

  1. Graduate student union will leave us financially worse off. The union will cost you several hundreds of dollars every year but won’t be able to negotiate and win enough benefits to offset your loss. (Watch out for misleading claims about union dues and pay increase.)  This is because the University is already financially constrained and because the union won’t be able to effectively use its only weapon, strike. If the weapon is used, it will likely cost you more than what the union can gain for you as a result.
  2. Graduate student union will disrupt our academic experience.  There several ways the union will be and already has been disruptive to our academic experience. If the union forms, union organizers’ intrusive organizing activities at your offices, classrooms, dining halls, dorm rooms, libraries, apartments, and labs will continue. They will come back again and again whenever there is an election, a vote, a survey, a contract renewal, a protest, a strike, and so on. Many of them are paid UAW part-time organizers ($25 per hour and a minimum of 20 hours per week), which presents a clear conflict of interest. If the union goes on strike you will be encouraged to participate (to maximize damage against the University). If you do, you will not be allowed to make progress on your research or do work for classes you teach. You may not be paid and could lose your benefits while the union is on strike.
  3. Graduate student union will not provide more protection against abuse and discrimination. The union’s grievance procedure will not be materially different from what the current University procedure is as exemplified in many graduate student union contracts including the collective bargaining agreement at NYU. There appears to be no empirical evidence that shows the existence of a student union and increased reporting rate of abuse and discrimination such as sexual assaults. There are already existing procedures for resolving complaints regarding the workload and it would be difficult to use union’s grievance procedure in practice. Simply having a union won’t likely fix late pay problem.
  4. Graduate student union will make our institution less equitable. Union supporters claim that the student union will not seek a “one-size-fits-all” approach that would tend to help certain students at the expense of others. At the same time, they claim that the union can fix disparities across various programs in the University. In a financially constrained environment, these claims are incompatible. Compromises would be necessary in contrast to what union supporters claim. 
  5. Graduate student union will make our institution less democraticUnion will diminish the voice of students in individual programs and departments by taking away their influence on administrative matters at a local level. Few individuals with strong views may dominate the negotiation with the University, resulting in a contract that reflects primarily the voice of those individuals rather than that of the whole graduate student body. The union movement has already had negative impacts on student organizations such as the GSAS Graduate Student Council whose purpose is to represent the diverse voices and viewpoints of students democratically. 
  6. Graduate student union does not make a convincing case. Union supporters do not make a convincing case for unionization. Their arguments are inconsistent and incoherent. They are littered with misleading claims. Their views of the University as a powerful employer on one hand and students as workers that need union for protection on the other do not accord with reality. The alliance of the HGSU-UAW signifies the diminishing power and influence of unions rather than their strengths. Union is a limited tool that should be applied to where it is appropriate. 
Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Six Arguments

  1. Very valid points. I am particularly concerned about losing freedom to work in the lab in the event of a strike. Research/Academics is my primary priority and I assume its the same for most others. I find no justification for a compromise in that regard therefore. “I haven’t made progress in my research in the recent past because the union is on a strike” – Is this what we should be telling our PI? Is this even something we ought to be telling ourselves even?

    Like

    1. This is a very common concern. I’d like to alleviate any worries about a strike. A strike is not necessary, very unlikely, and participation is entirely voluntary. Even if it were to happen, research work would continue as usual.

      I actually raised a similar concern with Rudi Batzell, who very kindly made time to meet with me at the Longwood campus. He assured me that everyone is well aware of the importance of research conducted at Harvard, and that no one will coerce researchers to postpone their work in the unlikely event of a strike.

      Could I ask you to please take a few minutes to read the FAQ?

      http://harvardgradunion.org/frequently-asked-questions/

      Here are the major points regarding strikes:

      1. “98% of union contracts are reached without a strike.”

      2. “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.”

      3. “It is up to individual members whether to go on strike, and the UAW does not fine members who do not participate.”

      Like

  2. Excellent arguments! I was extremely disturbed by union supporters who tried aggressively to get students to sign cards in the dining hall and interrupting our lunches and dinners, without giving both sides of the story. It was very inconsiderate of them and it shows lack of character and respect. Also, it is one thing if we have to go on strike and not report students’ grades for the classes we TF, it is another thing to be forced to take a break from our research, the very reason we enrolled in graduate school.

    Like

  3. I’m not a union organizer, but as a graduate student who will be affected by the outcome of this vote, I want to point out some of the misinformation in this article.

    1) The union has been completely transparent about dues. In addition, benefits to students don’t only show in paychecks; simply obtaining dental insurance would cover the value of the dues.

    2) In my opinion, union organizers have done a wonderful job spreading their message in the most direct way possible. They are volunteers and are doing this for our collective benefit. Canvassing is not fun for them! It’s a service to provide information without you even having to leave the lab or office. In terms of disrupting the academic experience, no one has to strike! It’s a personal choice, and there is no fine or punishment for not striking. In addition, striking is actually extremely rare and requires a 2/3 vote to go forward.

    3) In terms of protection against abuse and discrimination, it is obvious that the university’s grievance procedure is not sufficient. I have seen it all — sexual harassment, denied weekends/evenings/vacations, pressure to pay out of pocket for lab-related expenses, putting two graduates on the same project to compete, preventing students from attending seminars and conferences relevant to the career, lack of support and training, PhD candidates being denied an earlier graduation time if they are still free for their lab (have their own funding) or their PI doesn’t want to lose an experienced member. Problems like these are rampant and underdiscussed out of fear for retaliation. Clearly the current protocols are not sufficient, and we need a group to advocate for student workers.

    4) In response to the concern that the union is not equitable or democratic, it’s actually the complete opposite. WE elect the graduate workers to be on the bargaining committee. This provides us a voice for the first time in a university that normally makes policies without our input.

    The union’s goals are transparent and available. Here’s more accurate information straight from the source: http://harvardgradunion.org/frequently-asked-questions/

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Do you really spend hundreds of dollars annually to cover dental work? I have had more dental work during my time as a student here than in all four years of college combined and would love to have dental insurance; however, the claim in your first point is simply false.

      As stated previously, the organizers have done a wonderful job because they are PAID. Surely everyone must agree that having student representatives on the grad student council lobbying for a union and organizing/executing unionization efforts whilst receiving monetary compensation from UAW is a direct conflict of interest. These students must resign one of their positions. Frankly, I would have them offer up their positions in GSC before their “volunteer” positions for UAW, as operating in both capacities in the first place demonstrates flawed judgement and a deficiency in critical thinking.

      All of the examples you provide for institutional and workplace-specific issues are indeed problems; however, it is not the place of a union to address these concerns. Even if it were, what is the mechanism that would prevent or rectify for instance “denied weekends” or “paying for lab-related expenses out of pocket”…protest/strike?
      1) good luck receiving an advanced degree within a reasonable period of time if you take leave from your work to protest. I work 70-80 hours a week, every week, to eventually report my research in a good journal and constantly fear that someone will publish the same discovery first and diminish the impact of my article and therefore prolong my PhD and limit my job prospects. There are MANY students in this same boat. They are not going to protest. Why subject them to a union when a majority of them do not directly benefit and will not enhance its power to elicit change?
      2) are you so impoverished that you cannot contribute to your lab? The students I know, including myself, have donated myriad items to their labs and would spend their own money for something reasonable if necessary. Why? Because they, and I, feel fortunate to be students at a place like Harvard, which A) pays us generously to be STUDENTS and B) provides us with the best resources and education in the world.
      Oh, Harvard doesn’t pay you for your graduate program? Well. It is asinine to cluster students into the same union when their funding mechanisms differ. It is equally illogical to cluster students whose work and degrees are fundamentally different.

      I do not disagree that there are institution-wide and workplace-specific issues that need to be addressed. For some of these complaints, I simply say: “Graduate school is hard. You’re at Harvard for only a few years (unless you fancy striking). Be grateful for this opportunity. Work hard and complain later.” For serious issues such as sexual harassment and preventing students from graduating, I say each school should work together with our fantastic student representatives (excluding those individuals who have organized this union while being paid) and agreeable administration to develop systems to address these critical concerns. Harvard provides an impressive array of benefits, events, and programs for its students that would make students at other universities faint. Surely you don’t think ones responsible for this would be unreceptive to students’ requests for additional support and programs…

      Finally, why should we have faith that once we have formed a union [that is extremely difficult to disband] we will be able to leverage a contract that actually provides enough benefits to some/all to outweigh any potential disadvantages to some/all? You may like to gamble, but I don’t. And I certainly don’t agree that the environment for grad students at Harvard necessitates this action.

      Like

  4. Thanks for this article!

    I can see just from the comments that there is such a diverse variety of needs among GSAS students, I don’t see how unionization could help alleviate any of these problems. No workplace is perfect. I know many union members who, while proud of what unions have done for the American work force as a whole, are not getting paid on time, are not getting “deluxe” health insurance, and are forced to take money out of their own paychecks for required training and seminars.

    The HGSU-UAW website presents some complaints that simply don’t make sense. Harvard GSAS has one of the most generous and supportive family programs. I agree with the need for affordable housing, as someone who suffered greatly at the hands of deplorable slumlords because I could not afford to live in GSAS housing. But is a union going to solve this issue? How? As for complaints about class size, paychecks not coming on time, and dental coverage … these are common issues, not indications of exploitation, and they are not going to magically go away with unionization.

    I am not sure why this movement got so powerful, but I am waiting to see how the election turns out and hoping that with the privacy of voting, students who don’t support unionization will be able to have their voices heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In response to Samantha’s points above:

    1) This is true to an extent, but these are also promises, which there’s no guarantee the union can keep. For some students who already earn more than the projected increase in salary promised by the union (e.g. SEAS students), there is not much financial gain, and possibly concrete financial loss. For those of us in the humanities, the concrete gains don’t significant exceed regular and slated changes to the package over the next years (including our annual salary increase, and discussions about improving child care, etc. — all of which are currently going on in the administration).

    2) The most active canvassers are not volunteers; they are being paid well. They are very open about this fact, to their credit. The UAW would not be spending money on canvassers if it didn’t have something to gain.

    3) This is another valid point, but how is the union going to address it? Is it within the union’s power to renegotiate this grievance process?

    4) The way this unionization effort has come into being, suggests how undemocratic the process can be. Votes and elections are held by a majority of the people who vote. Throughout the last year, the union organizers have kept many of its decisions and votes quiet (including the one to affiliate with the UAW) in order to prevent any interference from people who might think differently. This tendency of stifling opposition has continued as far as I can tell throughout the process. A GSC board member who is involved in organizing, publicly directed GSC reps to a union-sponsored event for information, rather than to neutral town halls being held by SEAS and HLS. Even elected leaders in my department who are non-organizers but favor the union, have not held themselves to standards of neutrality in disseminating information on both sides of the issue. Organizers are frequently belligerent towards dissenters. The social environment of my department has certainly been poisoned by the unionization effort, and I can only imagine that this trend will continue.

    The fact that everyone skeptical of the union here has chosen to write anonymously, speaks volumes about the way this effort has made people afraid to speak their minds, and while I am confident that the organizers don’t want an environment of fear of intimidation, the toxic us-or-them rhetoric and aggression of the campaign has not reflected well on their democratic principles.

    Like

  6. Most of these arguments are “I’ve got mine, so fuck you” hiding behind a few simple scare tactics.

    1. “Oh no, we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’ll ruin the academic relationship and besides it won’t do any good”
    This is absurd, other schools have unionized and we can look at them for an expectation of what might happen. At NYU, for example, the students unionized, then the union was dissolved by a labor board decision, and once they could finally re-unionize, they voted to do so with a 98.4% majority[1], because they knew how valuable it was to them.

    2. “The union is going to be disruptive”
    Yes, sometimes. It’s supposed to be disruptive, because that’s how you promote awareness of the working conditions at the university. Opinions of people like the author of this blog is exactly why such awareness is needed.

    3. “The university is financially constrained, so pay cannot increase”
    Departments which currently pay their students too little would have to increase the pay, and hence they would need to take on fewer students. Harvard should not hire people if they can’t be paid a reasonable amount and on time, and given good benefits.

    Shifting blame around to existing grievance processes, to say “individual departments should do it”, et cetera simply isn’t going to cut it. I have known students who were not allowed to get married over the summer (becuase of summer students), or were told that parental leave is “incompatible” with the project, or that they should consider the weekend as another weekday.
    Will the union solve all of these things instantly? Probably not. Will it raise awareness of these issues across the school, so that graduate students actually realize that they have the right to be treated well? Definitely. And we really need that, because right now, it takes a lengthy suicide note with a list of suggestions to enact change (see Chemistry Dept).

    The dues for the union will likely be offset directly by improved benefits. And beyond that, the anti- arguments largely boil down to selfishness, to an unwillingness to imagine that other students’ experience at the university may be different from yours. The convincing case that needs to be made is not pro-union, but rather anti-union, and I am not convinced.

    [1] http://labornotes.org/blogs/2014/01/grad-employees-re-unionize-new-york-university-first-country

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If there’s an issue of certain schools or disciplines wanting to keep what they have, then I wonder why they should be included in the bargaining unit at all, especially if they are being paid by outside grants. Is it fair for the union to include students who have a wide range of different funding structures and sources?

    Personally I stand to gain materially by the creation of a union, and have been frustrated by how financially difficult it has been to live as a grad student in the Boston area; I’m especially sympathetic to parents. But I’m not persuaded that a union is the best way to help. Yale has dramatically improved their funding package and child care recently, and the last decade has shown that the Ivy Leagues tend to compete with each other in expanding benefits to grad students: when Dean Ming standardized and expanded stipends in 1999, he did so in response to other Ivy League schools doing the same thing. We are in a good position — how much better can the union reasonably make it, and at what cost? I worry about loss of flexibility in teaching assignments, the idea of maximum work hours as a teacher makes no sense to me, and at this point would be unwilling to support even the threat of a strike. I also don’t want my dues going to fund fossil fuel lobbyists…

    Like

  8. I’d like to encourage any students who will be affected by the Harvard UAW union to please take a few minutes to review the contract gains by other UAW academic unions:

    http://www.columbiagradunion.org/faq/contract-gains-by-other-uaw-academic-unions/

    The documents posted there have details about what has already happened at other schools where the students decided to form a union. You can learn from those details and make inferences for what may happen at Harvard.

    Like

  9. In response to Samantha:

    Do you really spend hundreds of dollars annually to cover dental work? I have had more dental work during my time as a student here than in all four years of college combined and would love to have dental insurance; however, the claim in your first point is simply false.

    As stated previously, the organizers have done a wonderful job because they are PAID. Surely everyone must agree that having student representatives on the grad student council lobbying for a union and organizing/executing unionization efforts whilst receiving monetary compensation from UAW is a direct conflict of interest. These students must resign one of their positions. Frankly, I would have them offer up their positions in GSC before their “volunteer” positions for UAW, as operating in both capacities in the first place demonstrates flawed judgement and a deficiency in critical thinking.

    All of the examples you provide for institutional and workplace-specific issues are indeed problems; however, it is not the place of a union to address these concerns. Even if it were, what is the mechanism that would prevent or rectify for instance “denied weekends” or “paying for lab-related expenses out of pocket”…protest/strike?
    1) good luck receiving an advanced degree within a reasonable period of time if you take leave from your work to protest. I work 70-80 hours a week, every week, to eventually report my research in a good journal and constantly fear that someone will publish the same discovery first and diminish the impact of my article and therefore prolong my PhD and limit my job prospects. There are MANY students in this same boat. They are not going to protest. Why subject them to a union when a majority of them do not directly benefit and will not enhance its power to elicit change?
    2) are you so impoverished that you cannot contribute to your lab? The students I know, including myself, have donated myriad items to their labs and would spend their own money for something reasonable if necessary. Why? Because they, and I, feel fortunate to be students at a place like Harvard, which A) pays us generously to be STUDENTS and B) provides us with the best resources and education in the world.
    Oh, Harvard doesn’t pay you for your graduate program? Well. It is asinine to cluster students into the same union when their funding mechanisms differ. It is equally illogical to cluster students whose work and degrees are fundamentally different.

    I do not disagree that there are institution-wide and workplace-specific issues that need to be addressed. For some of these complaints, I simply say: “Graduate school is hard. You’re at Harvard for only a few years (unless you fancy striking). Be grateful for this opportunity. Work hard and complain later.” For serious issues such as sexual harassment and preventing students from graduating, I say each school should work together with our fantastic student representatives (excluding those individuals who have organized this union while being paid) and agreeable administration to develop systems to address these critical concerns. Harvard provides an impressive array of benefits, events, and programs for its students that would make students at other universities faint. Surely you don’t think ones responsible for this would be unreceptive to students’ requests for additional support and programs…

    Finally, why should we have faith that once we have formed a union [that is extremely difficult to disband] we will be able to leverage a contract that actually provides enough benefits to some/all to outweigh any potential disadvantages to some/all? You may like to gamble, but I don’t. And I certainly don’t agree that the environment for grad students at Harvard necessitates this action.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s