Why We’re Voting for the Union at Harvard Medical School

Avery Davis Bell, Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Ryan Kuzmickas, Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Zebulon Levine, Chemical Biology; Chamith Fonseka, Biological and Biomedical Sciences; David Gootenberg, Virology; Caleb Weinreb, Systems Biology; Abigail Schiff, Immunology

As Harvard administrators once again try to encourage skepticism of unionization, we look forward to voting yes on April 18 and 19 and joining more than 40,000 other graduate employees around the country who have become part of the UAW. We are excited to vote ‘yes’ because through a union we will have more power to address the issues that we care about. A vote against the union only maintains Harvard’s ability to make unilateral decisions about our working conditions without our input.

The administration encourages a “robust conversation about the potential impact of unionization.” However, they leave out an abundance of facts and empirical evidence from our own recent experiences here at Harvard, as well as the successful track record of tens of thousands of UAW academic workers, which both show how we can benefit from unionization and refute the administration’s speculative “concerns.”

Why should we vote yes in this election?

Harvard’s omission of hundreds of voters in the last unionization election created confusion and ultimately prevented a fair election. According to the NLRB, “The employer’s failure to provide a complete voter list interfered with the employees’ exercise of a free and reasoned choice.” Since that election, we believe it has become clearer than ever why we should vote yes for unionization. Here are a few reasons.

The Union has already given us a stronger voice for a more just and inclusive Harvard

As part of a growing national movement of graduate workers, and as part of the UAW, we have already shown the power of coming together by taking on Trump’s discriminatory travel ban and by mobilizing to stop the proposed tax on tuition.

When the Trump administration announced its travel ban early last year, for example, international student workers and allies formed the HGSU-UAW International Scholars Working Group, which mobilized hundreds of Harvard community members to sign a petition to President Faust and eventually won a hotline and access to legal assistance for those affected. Our work joined with tens of thousands of other UAW academic workers and the national UAW, which filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case against the travel ban.

Similarly, when Republicans proposed a new tax on tuition waivers last fall, graduate workers in HGSU-UAW worked quickly and diligently to help lead the Harvard mobilization as a central part of a larger national graduate worker movement against the tax. HGSU-UAW organizers set up phone banks to Congress, published op-eds, talked to reporters, organized protests and worked closely with thousands of other UAW graduate workers in a campaign that successfully defeated this proposal that would have made graduate school unaffordable for all but the wealthy.

By joining together, we can make Harvard do better for all and enhance our voice at Longwood.

Last spring, as the NLRB continued to unravel the contested ballots from the first union election, Harvard unilaterally chopped our typical annual pay increase in half, citing “poor returns on Harvard’s endowment.” Later in the summer, the administration also imposed significant increases to the costs of dependent health insurance and to the costs of our prescription drugs. These sort of last-minute changes create unnecessary unpredictability and stresses that disrupt our ability to focus on our research. These cuts also damage our programs’ ability to compete with other top-notch biomedical research institutions like the University of Washington (UW) and Columbia.

With collective bargaining, Harvard could not make changes like this without our consent. This fundamental reason to vote yes at Harvard also helps explain why 40,000 other graduate workers have opted to unionize as part of the UAW.

By looking at competitor institutions with unions, we can see that joining together can make Harvard do better. At UW, a unionized Tier 1 research institution with a top-notch medical school, biomedical RAs received a 4% raise this year (on top of salaries already above most other departments at the university), which amounts to roughly $900 more than our raise here at Longwood. Whereas Harvard imposed a one-size-fits-all 1.5% increase on all of our departments — from Humanities to Division of Medical Sciences — regardless of funding sources, the collective bargaining agreement at UW ensures minimum annual increases but also explicitly allows academic units the flexibility to give a higher “departmental increase” if it has the ability and for the purpose of remaining competitive. With such an agreement at Harvard, it is quite possible some of our departments would have granted us larger raises this year.

At Columbia, graduate workers who voted by an overwhelming 72% in favor of unionization in late 2016 have won 10.5% (compared to 7.5% at Harvard) in pay increases over three years and fully-paid family health insurance premiums (which now costs $10,400 per year at Harvard). With such a strong majority support for their union, graduate workers at Columbia — who, like us at Harvard have not started paying dues — have won nearly $1,100 more in annual stipend increases and $10,400 more in annual dependent health insurance subsidies per year. While majority support and organizing can win improvements such as those at Columbia, collective bargaining enables us to build on and secure those gains in a contract that the administration cannot change unilaterally and also to negotiate important rights and protections like a fair grievance procedure for addressing sexual harassment or fair access to time off from our work in the labs.

A union can help us address sexual harassment and other inequalities that especially affect STEM

Despite Harvard’s claims to the contrary, we know that the current systems of recourse for sexual harassment frequently fail or take years to deliver justice, as in the case of Professor Dominguez. Gender based inequities, including sexual harassment, are endemic to STEM fields and help to maintain the gender gap in academia. The lack of fair procedures inhibits reporting, leads promising researchers to leave science altogether and widens the chasm of gender inequity within the academy. This does not have to be the case. A union can give us a new tool to make progress for vulnerable communities that for too long have not had an advocate in the academic workplace.

While some unions do not have a history of taking on sexual harassment, academic workers have used their unions to take on this problem with increasing success. At the University of Connecticut, for example, graduate workers have used their union grievance process and the larger power of organized advocacy to successfully address sexual harassment. In the most prominent example, after unsuccessfully trying to address alleged sexual harassment through UConn’s Title IX office, a graduate assistant who was on the verge of leaving her program worked closely with the union and achieved a just settlement that enabled her to stay in graduate school and become a “happy and productive” scholar.

Experiences at other universities refute the University’s “concerns” about unionization

In their effort to convince us to vote no, Harvard has emphasized three main concerns: “forced” membership dues might make us lose out financially; the union might force us to strike; and unionization could damage relationships with advisors. The experience at other universities refutes all of these concerns and assures us that we stand to gain by voting yes.

Dues: Recent UAW academic contract ratifications show clear satisfaction with the results of bargaining. As we do not pay membership dues until we vote to ratify our first contract, ratification results give us the only reliable measure of whether graduate workers found paying dues “worthwhile.” We find the academic UAW ratification votes since 2015 — at NYU, UConn, UW and all campuses in the University of California (UC) system — highly encouraging, with a majority of all eligible workers voting to ratify their contracts with margins of 98% or more, showing that people clearly decided it was “worth” the dues. Moreover, academic workers like those at UW continue to see dues as a worthwhile investment in maintaining a strong voice and representation over the long haul.

Strikes: Recent UAW academic strike votes have had majority support and led to fair contracts without striking

Harvard has tried to tell us that a small minority of graduate students could force us to strike and/or that since no one will want to strike we will not have any actual power as a union. The experience elsewhere shows the opposite. In the three most recent UAW academic bargaining campaigns where the right to strike exists (RAs and TAs at NYU and the University of Washington and postdocs at UC), a majority of all employees voted democratically — and by 90% or higher margins — to authorize their bargaining committees to call a strike if necessary. These votes recognize the possibility of a strike as an important source of power in collective bargaining. But they also show that it is only one tactic and a last resort we would use only if the University was being unreasonable — in all three cases, the bargaining committees reached agreement without an actual strike. At UConn, graduate employees do not have the right to strike as they are state employees and were still able to negotiate a strong first contract including a nearly 7% annual increase in total compensation. Lastly, in the rare cases in which strikes might happen, participation would be an individual choice and people who choose not to participate are not penalized in accordance with the UAW constitution.

Relationships with our advisors: Unionization can improve academic relationships.

Over the past four decades, no one has reported that collective bargaining has damaged advisor-advisee relationships. Existing studies show that many graduate students at unionized universities actually reported having better relationships with their faculty advisors. And many have noted that it can be extremely beneficial to not have to spend time chasing down late pay, figuring out how to access benefits, or dealing with other terms of employment. Finally, in the rare cases where a PI/advisor engages in misconduct, such as sexual assault or harassment, the union can serve as an advocate and lifeline, in a process involving a neutral arbitrator rather than university decision-makers, to help a graduate worker like the one at UConn address the problem without having to abandon the dream of an academic career.

Across the United States, tens of thousands of RAs and TAs and postdocs at schools with UAW-affiliated unions have successfully negotiated measurable improvements that have improved their academic experience, allowed them to focus more on the quality of their work, and made their universities more just and democratic.

We are confident that we at Harvard can do the same. On April 18th and 19th, please join us in voting yes.

Avery Davis Bell, Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Ryan Kuzmickas, Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Zebulon Levine, Chemical Biology

Chamith Fonseka, Biological and Biomedical Sciences

David Gootenberg, Virology

Caleb Weinreb, Systems Biology

Abigail Schiff, Immunology