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Union Organizing: University Organizing Efforts Viewed As Being A ‘Battleground’

Published Friday, March 20, 2020
by Ria Modak/
Union Organizing: University Organizing Efforts Viewed As Being A ‘Battleground’

(BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS) - On December 3rd, thousands of Graduate and Undergraduate Student Workers represented by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW) Union went on Strike.

Bundled in winter coats and sporting “UAW On Strike” signs, Strikers picketed, marched and rallied in falling snow and pouring rain.

For nearly four weeks, the HGSU-UAW withheld grading, research, and teaching. 

It disrupted deliveries, trash collection, and construction. 

And it built Worker Power with Local and National Unions to show the university administration that Student-Workers would continue to organize and fight until they won a fair contract. 

However, their historic fight for economic justice transcends personal gain.

The Strike holds extraordinary potential to interrogate the culture of academia itself.

Through a bold reimagining of Organized Labor and work in the university context, a call for widespread political education, and the mobilization of community allies, the HGSU-UAW ’s Strike has proven that collective action can change university structures.

Though the fight is not over, at Harvard, a Student-Worker Strike has the power to challenge the institution’s status-quo.

Before HGSU-UAW authorized the Strike in late October 2019, the Union and the University’s Bargaining Teams had met for 28 negotiating sessions since bargaining began in October 2018.

From petition deliveries to rallies and work-ins to occupations, the Union tried every escalatory tactic before calling for a Strike Authorization Vote in the hopes of reaching an agreement.

When the University refused to hear the Union’s demands, thousands of Student-Workers were forced to Strike, forgoing weeks of pay. 

While Student-Workers felt a Strike was necessary to win a fair contract, the Harvard Administration believed that the Strike was “unnecessary.”

In a university-wide e-mail, Provost Alan Garber insisted that “Strikes are adversarial by design.”

Meanwhile, the University declined to negotiate further before the December 3rd Strike deadline, only met with the Union once during the duration of the Strike, and continues to stonewall the HGSU-UAW’s main demands.

The three biggest concerns that have framed HGSU-UAW’s fight for an equitable contract are protections from discrimination and harassment, affordable health care, and fair pay.

On the first issue, Student-Workers are calling for a fair mechanism to address issues of discrimination and harassment: a neutral third-party grievance procedure.

This grievance procedure would eliminate the conflicts of interest in the university-controlled Title IX and Office of Dispute Resolution processes, which often fail survivors of sexual assault and Students of Color experiencing unfair treatment and abuse.

This is timely - according to the 2019 climate survey on sexual assault and misconduct, disclosures of sexual and gender-based harassment increased by 55% over the previous year.

In addition, unlike in university-controlled offices, it would apply unambiguously to all types of discrimination and harassment, including complaints on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability and other marginalized identities.

While the administration may imply that a grievance procedure would replace existing Title IX processes, this is not true - it would uphold and surpass Federal Title IX regulations.

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