Harvard strike move shows determination of teaching assistants

Student labour movement feels momentum despite Trump administration pressure

October 21, 2019
Best private universities in the United States

Teaching assistants at Harvard University are moving towards a strike authorisation vote, even without a recognised union, in the latest sign that US higher education may not be spared from labour unrest by a sympathetic Trump administration.

The demands from Harvard’s doctoral students – better pay, expanded healthcare and improved job protections – are fairly typical of their counterparts elsewhere in the US who provide critical teaching services at the undergraduate level.

“Workers here are pretty fed up” after a year without results on their contract demands, said Cory McCartan, a doctoral candidate in statistics at Harvard who is helping to organise negotiations. “The cost of not having these things locked into a contract is real.”

But in a potentially encouraging sign for the union organisers at Harvard and several other universities, they appear to be moving forward with their organisational efforts at a moment of major political uncertainty.

In the typical conditions of a Republican presidential administration, the agency charged with enforcing US labour law, the National Labor Relations Board, would simply reject the bid of the first university graduate student group to seek official recognition.

But three years into the Trump administration, that has yet to happen. Instead, Harvard and other universities have elected to keep talking with their graduate students – depriving the NLRB of an official opportunity to formally rule against the right of the students to do so in the legal structure of a union.

That has left the Trump-appointed majority on the NLRB frustrated, and moving to draft and impose rules forbidding graduate students’ unions – without the usual practice of waiting for a specific case to rule on.

Harvard is just one among at least two dozen US universities where graduate student workers are in the process of creating unions, according to a tally by graduate organisers at the University of Pittsburgh. More than three dozen institutions already have graduate workers’ unions.

“The face of the labour movement is changing, and it certainly isn’t dead, as some would argue. I think we’re gaining strength,” said Caitlin Schroering, a research assistant, doctoral student in sociology and union activist at Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has blocked for now the formation of a graduate students’ union, although that case is being adjudicated by a state-level labour relations board, leaving the NLRB outside the process.

The Harvard administration has argued that it is still bargaining with its graduate students in good faith and that their calls for a strike are unwarranted.

But the reluctance of Harvard and other universities to press the matter before the NLRB – when they know the Trump-appointed board is eager to side with employers – is a clear sign of worker power on US campuses, said William Gould, an NLRB chairman during the Clinton administration.

Such reluctance, said Professor Gould, who also taught law at Stanford University, likely reflects the institutions’ fear of negative publicity, amplified student activism and pressure from state lawmakers.

“This is what is truly remarkable about this,” Professor Gould said. “What it seems to indicate is that it’s possible this movement can persevere.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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