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‘A Real Shift’: New Harvard Student Union Forms Amid National Wave of Undergrad Unionization

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{shortcode-2a6d20b36bf1a51403bdb27028b331b88db39b7c} staggering 99.4 percent of Harvard’s nonacademic workers voted to unionize Wednesday. But Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union-United Auto Workers wasn’t the only undergrad workforce to unionize that day.

A second election — this one at the University of Oregon — also concluded on Wednesday, and with a decisive victory for organizers, 1055 to 30. The two successful votes reflect a growing push among undergraduates across the country toward unionization.

“Our success and Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union’s success just spell a real shift in the labor movement — a shift toward success,” said Noah Thompson, an organizer of the UO Student Workers Union.

The new Harvard union now represents more than 400 students working in libraries, cafes, the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub, and the equity, diversity, and inclusion offices. Undergraduate course assistants and teaching fellows are already represented by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW.

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“When I go into work, it will be a union job,” said Marcus W. Knoke ’24, a HUWU-UAW organizer who works at Widener Library. “It’s another step towards something that’s going to be a really positive change for my life and the lives of my coworkers.”

While their approaches vary, undergraduates across the country are organizing en masse for greater financial compensation and job stability.

“There is an increasing push for unionization, regardless of the kind of work or the type of workplace,” Knoke said.

‘They Need This Work’

The earliest known undergrad workers union, the Wisconsin Student Workers Union, began representing student dining workers at the University of Wisconsin in 1914 but eventually dissolved.

From 2003 to 2016, the Resident Assistant and Peer Mentor Union at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was the only union in the country with a primarily undergraduate bargaining unit.

RAPMU’s 2021 contract included weekend time off, 2.5 percent yearly stipend increases, workload restrictions, and an established grievance process.

After Grinnell College students established the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, more than a dozen new undergraduate-focused unions have been recognized, including at Barnard College, Tufts University, and Dartmouth College.

Keir M. Hichens, a graduate of Grinnell and former president of UGSDW, said the union effort began out of a desire to improve wages and working conditions for student dining workers.

“At the time, the college did not really understand what was going on or how big of a deal it would end up being,” Hichens said.

The college voluntarily recognized UGSDW, according to Grinnell spokesperson Ellen de Graffenreid.

The UGSDW expanded in April 2022 to include all Grinnell undergraduate workers, becoming the first fully unionized undergraduate workforce in the country.

Harvard undergraduates began their campaign supported both by HGSU-UAW and by veteran undergraduate organizers from Grinnell and Kenyon College.

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Undergraduates are increasingly turning to unionization as a means of ensuring financial stability.

“Sometimes it’s sort of belittled — the fact that undergrads, some people need this money,” said HUWU-UAW organizer Kojo Acheampong ’26. “They need this job, they need this work.”

Undergrad course assistants and teaching fellows that have been represented by HGSU-UAW since 2018 have seen their minimum wage increased to $21 per hour in the union’s 2021 contract. Other student campus workers have called for similar job stability and improved compensation.

“I think that all workplaces should be unionized,” HUWU-UAW organizer Brit G. Shrader ’24 said. “There are a lot of low-income students that have to have a campus job.”

“Undergrads deserve to know if they’ll be employed year to year, if worksites will reopen, if they’ll be able to live off the wages they’re provided because not everyone at Harvard is rich,” former HGSU-UAW President and current UAW Staff Organizer Koby D. Ljunggren said at a HUWU rally last spring.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment at the time of the rally.

Students who voted in Wednesday’s HUWU-UAW election said winning tips for cafe workers and transparency around workplace closures partly motivated their votes.

At Barnard, resident assistants voted to unionize last year and are currently in the process of negotiating their first contract, a process they began nine months ago. Compensation for students on financial aid is a sticking point in the negotiations, according to union organizer Nina Goldschmid.

Still, the need to schedule bargaining sessions around classes has slowed down the process.

“It’s not if we’ll get a contract done; it’s when we’ll get a contract done,” Goldschmid said.

The upward trend in undergrad-led unionization demonstrates a general increase of support for labor among younger generations.

Over the past decade, unionization efforts have seen “large growth” among non-tenure-track faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergrads, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York.

“This is consistent with polls that demonstrate overwhelming support for labor among those 30 years of age and younger,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

John T. Trumpbour, research director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, said the increase in graduate student unions created more support for undergraduate union efforts.

“They are in a much stronger position now that so much more of the University is unionized,” Trumpbour said of Harvard’s union scene.

“We do have a lot of workers very unhappy right now. They do feel like they’ve got to take some strong steps,” he added.

Strength in Numbers

For many undergrad unions, gaining bargaining power is a numbers game. Campus workers around the country have taken different approaches to who — and how many — to represent.

While resident assistant unions are the most common type of undergraduate union, they are not the only type of bargaining unit. Sports teams, library workers, dining hall workers, and students working in clerical roles are covered to varying degrees by unions.

Most recently, on Sept. 13, the men’s basketball team at Dartmouth filed a petition seeking voluntary recognition as a labor union from the college, following in the footsteps of Northwestern University’s football team, which sought to unionize in 2014 but was later denied by the National Labor Relations Board.

At Emerson College, in a more ambitious effort, organizers have been attempting to unionize the entire student body — workers and non-workers alike — for more than a year. Organizers say they aim to bargain for lowering the college’s tuition cost and increasing financial aid, but Emerson College Students’ Union has not been recognized.

The New Student Workers Union at the New School in New York is the closest direct counterpart to Harvard’s undergraduate union in its approach. NewSWU, which began organizing in March, intends to unionize every undergrad worker on their campus, bringing together a diverse group of small workplaces.

NewSWU organizer Vanessa N. Guaraca said the campaign is still waiting for a decision from the NLRB on their bargaining unit size before an election can be held.

But unlike NewSWU, which opted to unionize the entire undergraduate workforce at once, HUWU-UAW has taken a sector-by-sector approach. After Wednesday’s election, only some of the undergraduates employed on campus are included in the bargaining unit.

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Others, including peer mentors, tour guides, and house aides remain without representation. HUWU-UAW will begin the second phase of unionizing by submitting an Armour-Globe election petition to allow undergraduates who are currently not included to join HUWU-UAW at a later date, the same strategy used at Grinnell.

The two-pronged approach allowed organizers to avoid the initial challenge of including workers in very dispersed workplaces while forming their initial union body. The union will now elect a bargaining committee and establish their top priorities through a unit-wide survey.

“We’ll have a two-part focus, which is organizing other student workers to have card campaigns and do an Armour-Globe and get them into the unit, and also obviously negotiating our contract,” HUWU-UAW organizer Syd D. Sanders ’24 said.

Wednesday’s official vote count by the NLRB was observed by both HUWU-UAW organizers and Harvard Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran. After the vote tally was announced, Curran turned to organizers in the room before leaving.

“See you soon,” he said.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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