Vote No E-mail

Here is a copy of the e-mail that was broadly sent out to graduate students at Harvard on November 10th. It provides a clear and concise summary of why the graduate students at Harvard should vote “No” at the up-coming union election. It was drafted by multiple students and signed by fifteen students who believe that the unionization would do more harm than good to our community. 


Fellow Graduate Students,

Next week on Wednesday and Thursday, we vote on whether to unionize with the Harvard Graduate Student Union and United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW). This union proposal is unprecedented in terms of its scale and impact on graduate students. We invite you to spend ten minutes learning about both sides of the argument because the proposed HGSU-UAW union will have long-lasting consequences for current and future graduate students at Harvard.

We are a group of graduate students who believe that while the possible benefits of unionization have been widely advertised, the potential disruptions and disadvantages have been downplayed or ignored. Up to this point, the vast majority of information about the union has come from those who support its formation. Although many of those arguments make unionization sound attractive, the details are far more complicated. In this email, we lay out some arguments against unionizing with HGSU-UAW.

For more information, we strongly encourage you to explore this blog by Jae Hyeon Lee, a fourth-year PhD student in Physics Department, which provides more detailed arguments against unionization.

  • If a union is formed, you will have to pay dues. Even if you decide not to be a voting member of the union, you will still have to pay a comparable annual fee known as an “agency fee.” Massachusetts is not a right-to-work state, so you cannot opt out.

  • Union fees will be at minimum 1.44%, more likely 2% of your total pre-tax stipend and wages. For a Teaching Fellow in the Humanities receiving $21,200 per year, this is $305-$424. For a student receiving a stipend of $36,000 per year, this is $518-$720. Over the course of 5 years, you can realistically expect to pay between $2,120and $3,600, without accounting for the expected stipend increases (see next point).

  • HGSU-UAW representatives have said that union dues will be offset by bargaining for increases in stipends, but this is misleading. Over the past five years the University has given graduate students a 3.1% pay increase per year on average in addition to a host of other benefits, including a professional development funds package for incoming students, a T-Pass subsidy of 50%, improvements in stipend duration for departments throughout GSAS, and 12 weeks (equal to $6,264) of paid time off for new parents. If union dues are 1.5-2%, HGSU would potentially have to bargain for a 4.7-5.2% increase in the first year to break even with what we have had in the past. Such an ambitious stipend hike might not be achievable: At NYU, the grad student union’s negotiated stipend increase was not sufficient to offset the union dues for all students. It is very possible that Harvard graduate students will end up with a reduced pay increase.

  • Many of the union representatives who have been approaching you to solicit your support are paid by UAW at $25 per hour – up to $500 per week – which presents a clear conflict of interest. (By contrast, there is no funded or professionally coordinated opposition body – just concerned graduate students.) The United Auto Workers union will use a portion of our union dues to pay for their unionization and political campaigns across the country. Your funds will also go to support UAW staff salaries, of which more than 60% were above $100,000 in 2013.

  • The HGSU-UAW representatives have made additional promises with no assurance that they would be substantiated. There is no guarantee that HGSU would be able to provide us with better protection against abuse and discrimination, that it will make Harvard more equitable, or that it will make it more democratic.

  • The union will be disruptive to your 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. If the union goes on strike you will be encouraged to participate (to maximize damage against the University). If you do, you may be prevented from making progress on your research or working for classes you teach. You may not be paid and could lose your benefits while the union is on strike.

  • The only weapon that the union has – a strike – will not be effective. Many of us who are busy with our dissertations are not interested in going on strike, and in speaking with our classmates, this seems like a common view. If you are not willing to go on strike, and if a majority of people feel the same way, then the union will have no real bargaining power. This raises the question of what the purpose of having a union is in the first place.

  • UAW chapters have a history of controversial politicking that does not represent the diverse values of Harvard graduate students. Your union dues can be used to financially support the political agenda of the UAW, regardless of whether it aligns with your own political views. In 2013 alone, UAW spent over $9 millionon political activities. UAW is a national union whose economic interests, which include promoting the US auto industry and competing against foreign manufacturers, may set it against the multinational and ideologically diverse graduate student body. It (understandably) holds anti-free trade and protectionist economic positions. Furthermore, the low student participation rates at other universities have allowed UAW graduate student unions at the University of California (UAW 2865) and NYU (UAW 2110) to enact and fund highly politicized resolutions – including endorsement of BDS against Israel, a highly controversial campaign – with the support of a tiny faction of activist students.

  • We cannot expect to put our faith in a one-size-fits-all contract that has yet to be written. Graduate students and teaching assistants across the University’s 11 Schools and more than 50 degree programs, each with a wide variety of needs and interests, would be included in a single union contract. Everyone in the bargaining unit is bound to this contract, regardless of whether we agree with it or not. The HGSU has failed to provide concrete examples of how it will address these different needs or how the elected student officials will get adequate advice and training to take on such a monumental task.

  • We already have representatives in each of our schools. HGSU has not explained why their complaints cannot be met through our proud tradition of student advocacy and constructive discourse with Harvard. Nothing that they demand necessitates a UAW-backed union model.

  • Unionization is likely irreversible. There is a decertification process, but it requires signatures of 30% of the bargaining unit followed by a majority vote, can only occur near the end of a multi-year collective bargaining agreement, cannot be sponsored by the administration, and in practice only occurs very rarely.

On November 16th and 17th, we will be voting on a union without any assurance that it will act in our individual best interests or improve our condition as grad students. We have only been given verbal promises and lofty statements; the existing precedents and facts paint a very negative picture.

We are not against unions: we are against this union. Unionization is obviously an important protection for the thousands of workers represented by United Auto Workers. But we are graduate students. We work with Harvard, not against it. Our needs are not best met by a labor-bargaining model.

We urge you to consider all aspects of this vote, and vote against the formation of a union this November 16th and 17th.

Finally, if you share these sentiments, please like our Facebook page and forward this e-mail to your friends!

One thought on “Vote No E-mail

  1. Many people have been inquiring me and some of the people who signed the e-mail that was sent out this week whether the administration was involved in any way behind our action. I want to clearly state that there was no such involvement. We are acting voluntarily as students. It is also important to note that we are not an organization but simply a group of students who are concerned about the prospect of unionization.

    As an individual, I wanted to shed some light on how Dean Garth McCavana became aware of my website and what motivated to become outspoken about this issue. Dean McCavana and I met for the first time during my first year of graduate school three years ago. I met with him to discuss some of my challenges adjusting to the new environment and later to request help on a personal immigration issue I had. He and his colleagues worked together to ensure that I had the best support I needed to get through the tough time and continue my education in the US. (The issue was resolved successfully.) This is one of the reasons why I feel grateful and indebted to the University administration and why I am outspoken against the movement that portrays the administration as enemy. In my view, the University has many wonderful resources that can help students during tough times. Unfortunately, some students decide to see the University as the enemy and never seek out these resources.
    Since then, I talked to him about a range of issues both personal and University related. One issue that we began discussing last Fall was the unionization issue as I was deeply concerned about the movement that was already well underway. At that time, I shared with Dean McCavana a website (not I created through Harvard’s platform that voiced concerns about HGSU-UAW and asked him to help me be connected with students who are like-minded. Soon after Dean McCavana received accusations from some students that the administration is behind the creation of the website (as it was affiliated with Harvard). He asked me if I could take down the site so as not to confuse some people and give them the wrong impression. I took down the site and didn’t do anything for awhile until I heard that there was going to be an election. I had more time to think about the union issue and thought it would be good to write them down into a series of articles to organize my thoughts and share them with others. That is why I created the blog and shared it with the administration, making the same request that they help me be connected with students who are like-minded.

    It is disappointing that so many of our peers are willing to entertain an outlandish idea that somehow the administration is behind all our effort to resist the unionization. It is not that we don’t understand what democracy is and/or have not been educated enough about our conditions. Many of us honestly think the unionization is a bad idea as we explained in our e-mail. I don’t think an organization run by a group of students with bad judgements would do any great service to the University and its members. That is why I am against the HGSU-UAW.

    Lastly, I want to express gratitude to the many students that had the courage to voice their concerns and opinions publicly.


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