Harvard’s Academic Workers Unionized. But in a Year of Labor Ups and Downs, How Did They Win?


{shortcode-3f3e57005be88db1897fbe0aab6a26f27b883007}efore April 2018, not a single academic worker at Harvard belonged to a union.

The very idea of a student worker was under legal scrutiny, and early academic unions were locked in court battles in addition to contentious union elections.

Now, almost 9,000 academic workers, from undergraduate course assistants to postdoctoral fellows, are represented by one of three affiliated unions of the United Auto Workers.

The story of a dramatic expansion in higher education labor organizing has been told at colleges and universities across the country, but Harvard is among the most union-dense.


With the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW as a model for organizing, two unions — representing non-tenure-track faculty and student workers in non-academic positions — won union elections in the last nine months, while another struggled to unionize.

Harvard Academic Workers-UAW was the campus labor scene’s roaring success, organizing 3,300 non-tenure-track workers at Harvard — a group uniquely important to University research and teaching programs.

In early April, HAW-UAW held two concurrent union elections for their unit, split into one unit for non-tenure-track faculty in Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Divinity School and a smaller unit for less than 100 clinical workers at Harvard Law School.

Though the unit is roughly half the original scope after narrowing down from academic workers at every school, the elections dramatically increased the number of unionized student-workers at Harvard combined with roughly 400 newly-unionized student workers in non-academic jobs.

With elections behind it, HAW-UAW now faces the greater challenge of delivering improved employment terms in its first contract. While there is no set timeline in place yet, the union may attempt to begin negotiations within one year of the April election once it determines bargaining priorities through a survey.

Erik Baker, a History of Science department lecturer and organizer with the Harvard Academic Workers-UAW, said his former involvement with HGSU-UAW inspired him to join the early organizing efforts for a non-tenure track union when he joined Harvard’s faculty in 2022.

“I noticed that there was a real sense of energy,” Baker said. “It was kind of like we’re starting to put this turbulent period behind us, we’ve been at this for a long time.”

“Now is the time to really make a push and finally witness this union,” he added.

‘They Burn Out’

For many at Harvard working without the prospect of tenure, the new union offers the hope of a safety net.

Roughly 6,000 Harvard employees fall under the umbrella term “non-tenure-track” — academics hired on short-term contracts, most of which are nonrenewable and time-capped. Workers say this system puts them in a precarious position in an already-unstable academic job market.

Academics on the tenure track have the possibility of acquiring tenure, which awards professors nearly unlimited job security. For non-tenure-track faculty — who move in and out of the Harvard system within a matter of years — no such protections exist.

In The Crimson’s 2023 FAS survey, more than 71 percent of non-ladder faculty respondents said their school did not provide them enough support in their roles. Respondents also expressed concerns about being shut out of decisions made in their department.

Many non-tenure-track workers are also not provided with childcare benefits on par with tenure-track workers.


But beyond department culture and personal benefits, many non-tenure-track faculty are concerned about a more basic number: compensation.

Across unionized workers on campus, pay and whether raises keep pace with the steadily rising cost of living in Cambridge has become a uniting issue. While Harvard raised the minimum postdoc salary to $65,000 in 2023, some say it’s not enough.

Kelsey Tyssowski, a postdoctoral fellow in the Hoekstra Lab and an HAW organizer, said while she was glad to see the pay increase, researchers had spent years repeatedly informing administrators of the pay disparities between Harvard and peer institutions before administrators finally took action.

“We were for a long time just asking, ‘Can you make a plan to raise the salary scale to the NIH minimum?’” Tyssowski said. “Even that was hard.”

“For all we know, if we don’t put any more pressure on them, they could keep it at 65 for the next 10 years,” she added.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the criticisms.

In 2022, the median income was $58,550 in Cambridge and $45,132 in Boston. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the average living wage for one adult living in Boston or Cambridge with no children is $62,483.

The sentiment is not unique to postdocs. In the 2023 FAS survey, 68 percent of non-tenure-track faculty who responded said their salary was too low compared to approximately 35 percent of ladder faculty, who are classified by the National Labor Relations Board as managers and ineligible for unions.

But it is the time cap structure of non-tenure-track positions that make them unique both from other groups of workers at Harvard and from academics at most peer institutions.

HAW-UAW has emphasized its ability to force Harvard to remove time caps — likely a key bargaining issue ahead of their first contract. While Princeton University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania also have official caps, most universities have unofficial caps where administrators chose not to renew renewable contracts.

In 2009, an FAS committee briefly considered a career ladder for non-tenure-track faculty that would have eliminated the eight-year limit on teaching appointments, though the proposition was ultimately not recommended on the grounds that it was “not in the best interests of our students and the faculty as whole.”

The committee wrote in its report that “many of the teaching functions held by non-ladder faculty are highly demanding and require regeneration that brings in fresh ideas, new talent, and the most recent pedagogical techniques.”

“If the promotion rate is high, the ranks of non-ladder instructors would become top heavy and the flow of new talent would become a trickle, but if the promotion rate is low the promotion decisions could become divisive and ultimately harm the system,” they added.

Lecturer and Expository Writing preceptor J. Gregory Given said the committee’s explanation revealed a lack of concern about the workers themselves.

“What I hear from that is these jobs are hard and they burn out instructors,” Given said. “So the best way to keep them fresh is to flush out the burned out people and get people in with their young, early career energy that you can continue to expend.”


The committee also suggested in the report that the proposal might allow faculty members to inordinately delegate undergraduate teaching to non-tenure-track instructors.

They wrote that “having a robust shadow system of senior non-ladder instructors raises the specter of ladder faculty inappropriately delegating their undergraduate teaching duties.”

But to Given, that logic does not justify the University’s current treatment of non-tenure-track teachers.

“If it’s inappropriate for the ladder faculty to delegate their teaching duties,” Given said, “the way to solve that problem is for the ladder faculty to teach more undergraduates — not to fire the undergraduate teachers.”

A Personalized Approach

Unlike its sibling unions on campus, HAW-UAW took a different approach to its unionizing.

While there had been talk of unionizing different groups of non-tenure-track faculty since Fall 2018, the effort took on new energy after 2021 when lecturers, preceptors, research associates and postdocs joined together to organize.

In the year after the group launched its campaign to unionize — before it filed for an official recognition election — the HAW-UAW maintained a minimal public presence rather than march through the streets with signs and chants.

Instead, organizers chose to pursue a more personalized approach, launching a massive campaign to meet academic workers from every included workplace and sway each of them in support.

As the year dragged on, the group’s window of opportunity continued to close. Union authorization cards — which allows workers to show their support for the union campaign and indicate whether they would vote for it in an election — only remain valid for one calendar year, and the group was under pressure to officially move forward with filing for election.

Despite the new approach, Koby D. Ljunggren, a UAW staff organizer and member of HAW-UAW, said that that process was as simple as “talking to people.”

“You want to make sure you’ve talked to enough people that you feel confident going into an election saying, ‘yeah, we’re obviously going to win it,’” they said.


When the election finally took place in April, almost 40 percent of the eligible voters from both units showed up to the polls, voting 93 percent in favor.

But even after one year of conversations and outreach, when the election took place, not every school with non-tenure track faculty was included.

Despite intending to unionize all 6,000 non-tenure track faculty at the University, just over 3,000 workers were included in the eventual unit — academic workers at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and non-clinical instructors at Harvard Law School were not initially included.

According to Baker, the gap between the goal and final number was because organizers “decided to start with the turfs where we had the strongest organizing presence.”

HAW is still keeping the door open to the possibility of expanding their unit to eventually include all non-tenure-track workers.

Though the organizing initially fell short, Baker said, “HAW believes as a matter of principle that all workers deserve a union.”

“We certainly are in touch with people from schools across the university who are interested in joining HAW,” he added.

A Striking Exception

Just as HAW-UAW was celebrating major election victories, a second prospective bargaining unit voted to reject a union effort by the Harvard Union of Residential Advisors.

HURA shared a lot of similarities to HAW-UAW. It too received organizational support from the UAW and organized a relatively private campaign through word of mouth.

But HURA got off on the wrong foot with the proctors, tutors, and house-aides it was attempting to represent — and with just 345 people, every vote counted.

Members expressed frustration over a perceived lack of communication from organizers both before and after the public launch, with some saying that they did not trust organizers and the union to represent them.

On a poster distributed before elections, some proctors wrote the unionization effort “made us feel excluded” and would exclude people from joining residential advisor jobs.


“We do not trust HURA,” they wrote.

Ljunggren — formerly a volunteer staff organizer for HURA and former president of HGSU-UAW — pinned much of the opposition to HURA as a result of communications from Harvard administrators.

“A lot of it was real bad misinformation that was being intentionally peddled by the University to try to act like there was this real legal barrier,” Ljunggren said.

Prior to the election, HURA organizers alleged that administrators had used union-busting tactics including a “captive audience meeting” where House Deans discussed unionization with tutors and house-aides.

Newton, the Harvard spokesperson, wrote in a statement that “Harvard is committed to the democratic process, respects the individuals’ right to choose whether or not to be represented by a union, and strongly believes that voters should make the choice that is right for them.”

“To that end, Harvard has sought to address voters’ legitimate questions and concerns,” he added. “Throughout this process, Harvard has made clear that retaliation of any sort will not be tolerated.”

According to Ljunggren, HAW’s size and structure protected it from a similar effort from the University.

“With a lot of these smaller units, you can actually have this misinformation campaign run much more aggressively because those workplaces are much more intimate,” Ljunggren said. “You trust your boss and if your boss says something, well, must be true.”

‘A Harvard By Harvard Workers’

In the past few years, union density has steadily increased on campus.

Heading into the next academic year, the University’s Office of Employee and Labor Relations will need to bargain with five different unions to settle disagreements over wages, benefits, and other working conditions.


HGSU-UAW — which has already gone on strike twice since it was officially recognized in 2018 — will likely begin bargaining for their third contract in January 2025, which may happen on a similar timeline to HAW-UAW. HUWU-UAW organizers are already in the process of bargaining and expect to ratify their first contract in the fall.

In addition to the three academic unions, the Harvard University Police Association and the Service Employees International Union, which represents Harvard’s custodians, will see their contracts expire in 2025.

While the three academic unions — HAW, HGSU, and HUWU — are technically distinct, the possibility of simultaneous bargaining presents the opportunity for joint action across groups.

According to Ljunggren, the unions could coordinate the timing of strikes to maximize leverage.

“It’s building that pipeline so we can then work together, through contracts, through labor organizing, through whatever means that’s available to us to really achieve a Harvard by Harvard workers, for Harvard workers,” they said.

As collective labor efforts increasingly sweep Harvard and the nation, organizers hope the unions will increasingly work together toward common goals.

“Οne of our shared visions and goals is to recapture the University from a lot of focus on the administration,” Ljunggren said. “Who does the administration really serve?”

“It serves the people who make the University run,” they added.

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

—Staff writer Aran Sonnad-Joshi can be reached at Follow him on X @asonnadjoshi.