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‘Not Too Much to Ask’: Harvard Undergrad Workers Rally for a Union After University Denies Recognition

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More than 40 students, staff, and supporters rallied in Harvard Yard Friday in support of unionizing undergraduate workers after the University rejected the campaign’s request for voluntary recognition April 7.

Two months after the public launch of the Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union, a group of roughly 15 organizers delivered a neutrality agreement on April 3 to the University’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations that included a request for voluntary recognition.

Four days later, Director of Labor and Employee Relations Paul Curran emailed Koby D. Ljunggren, the president of Harvard’s graduate student union — which has voted to affiliate with HUWU — to inform organizers the University would not agree to voluntarily recognizing the union effort.

“The University is steadfast in its position that every eligible student be given the opportunity to make their voices heard on this important matter,” Curran wrote.

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Without voluntary recognition, HUWU will have to gain majority support through an official union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

At Friday’s rally, attendees and organizers gave speeches and broke into chants, such as “HUWU, woo-hoo, recognize our union too!” and “An undergraduate workers union: it’s not too much to ask!”

When HUWU organizer Syd D. Sanders ’24 mentioned Curran’s reply during a speech at the rally, the crowd responded with boos.

“Shame on Paul! Shame on Paul!” attendees chanted.

Ljunggren said in an interview after the rally that while the chant was not planned, the Office of Labor and Employee Relations often does not adequately “respect the rights of workers,” adding that “there is a lot of disdain and discontentment from the actions of that office.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article.

At the rally, Sanders said in a speech that Harvard gave serious consideration to recognizing the unionization effort, which he said was “a show of our strength.”

Ljunggren said in their interview that the four-day period that Harvard took to reject HUWU’s voluntary recognition request indicates that the University was “seriously considering and actually having a discussion about” whether to grant recognition.

“At the end of the day, there was no voluntary recognition in part because it’s something Harvard has never done before and I think they just don’t want to start now,” Ljunggren said.

“Most of the time it’s like a one-day turnaround where they’re like ‘No, not interested,’” they added.

The petition comes just weeks after the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers voted to affiliate with HUWU should they win official recognition and ratify their first contract with the University. HUWU will receive organizational support from HGSU-UAW until their first contract is signed.

“We are happy to welcome you into the fold as part of an amalgamated local that has the tools and power to fight for HUWU’s demands and win,” HGSU-UAW organizer Alexandra C. Stanton said at the rally.

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HUWU expects to file an election with the National Labor Relations Board in the next few weeks. Once they file, the NLRB will verify that at least 30 percent of eligible employees have signed union authorization cards before an election is conducted.

More than 170 undergraduate workers have signed union cards as of Sunday night. HUWU estimates there are 277 eligible workers who can be represented by HUWU in total, allowing them to determine they have collected cards from around 62 percent of workers.

While organizers had previously suspected the University would contest the total number of eligible workers to prevent HUWU from surpassing the 30 percent threshold, Ljunggren said they “don’t feel there’s any will from the University to mount a big campaign against this effort.”

When the grad student union was pushing for unionization in 2018, the movement was “tough on the University,” Ljunggren said.

“I think the University does not want to repeat something like that,” they added. “I think they want to get it right the first time.”

In an April 6 interview with The Crimson, Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said should a majority of workers vote for a union during an NLRB-directed election, the University “will act in good faith.”

Harvard has not yet responded to the neutrality agreement itself. At the rally, Sanders said that if Harvard agreed to neutrality, they would be agreeing “not to retaliate against organizers and abstain from union-busting practices.”

“It’s not going to be easy to win these things,” Stanton said. “Harvard will fight you like hell every step of the way.”

“Harvard is a business and it operates just like any other big business,” she added.

Sanders said organizers specifically planned Friday’s rally at the end of National Student Employment Week, for which Harvard held events distributing free merchandise and food.

At the rally, speakers from HUWU as well as HGSU-UAW, Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, and the union representing Harvard’s custodial workers, 32BJ Service Employees International Union, called on Harvard to raise wages and ensure workplace stability.

“There is no reason workers who work 20 hours a week feel scared to ask their bosses about a raise when they’ve been in their jobs for years,” said Marcus W. Knoke ’24, who currently works at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study as a multimedia intern.

A major issue that HUWU has targeted is what it sees as the lack of an official process for hiring. Workers said they do not sign contracts when employed.

“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,” Ljunggren said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to confirm whether undergrads sign contracts when employed by Harvard.

HUWU joins another unionization campaign on campus: Harvard’s non-tenure-track preceptors and postdocs, who began their card campaign in early February. HUWU organizers speculated that Harvard is more concerned about Harvard Academic Workers-United Automobile Workers’ union drive than that of the undergraduates.

“I think that they’re in a state of being quite overwhelmed by other organizing campaigns on campus, specifically the Harvard Academic Workers Union, because there’s about 6,000 of them and they’re making a lot more money than us,” Sanders said.

HUWU organizer Austin Siebold ’23 said the University should be “pretty worried” about the push for unionization on campus.

“All together, to me, if I’m Harvard, it paints a pretty troubling picture,” she added.

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

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