For Harvard University, the presidential election wasn’t the only high-profile vote of 2016. In November, the institution’s graduate students cast ballots on whether to join a union. The initial tally has the noes leading by approximately 180 votes—but the eligibility of more than 300 votes is currently being challenged. If union supporters carry the day, the world’s wealthiest university will become home to the newest chapter of the United Auto Workers (UAW), marking one of the first instances of a private university being forced to accept a union of students against its will.
Another physics graduate student, Jae Hyeon Lee, who also signed the letter, was a particularly vocal opponent. Lee organized for the union in its early days but ultimately changed his mind, launching an anti-union website and writing an opinion piece for the student newspaper railing against the UAW. “I’m not against unionization in general,” Lee says. “But I came to believe that this union, and the antagonist tone it sets, is not the right approach for Harvard.” He favors working through traditional channels like the Physics Graduate Student Council, which he is a member of.
The issue of grad student unionization hinges on the distinction between work and education. Under federal law, employees have certain rights that students do not, including unionizing. Because graduate training combines elements of both employment and education, doctoral students have historically existed in a gray area. Students at public universities have been empowered to unionize for decades. Private institutions, on the other hand, were not required to recognize their graduate students’ right to unionize until this past August, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants are employees.
New York University’s graduate student union, which includes only teaching assistants and which the institution voluntarily recognized in 2013, has had successes in this area, says Seana Lymer, unit representative for the union and a Ph.D. candidate in biology. “NYU was hiring teachers for the summer and then, the week before classes were supposed to start, canceling classes that didn’t have enough students and leaving people without the money they were relying on,” Lymer says. “One of the successes [the union] had was getting those teachers some of the money they were promised.”
But although some students in the sciences teach—and rely on the stipend from that work to cover their living expenses—many others don’t, instead obtaining their funding from grants or fellowships that do not require teaching. For these students, the line between their work and education may be blurrier. “The paid teaching that students in the humanities do is clearly separate from the research they do for their education,” says Elizabeth Jaensch, a graduate student in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard Medical School who voted against unionization. “In the sciences, we earn our stipends by doing the same research that is our dissertation.”
Nicoludis sees it in a different light. “When you’re in a lab in the sciences, your adviser is really your boss,” he says. “The structure is actually more similar to a traditional workplace than it is for humanities students, who have an adviser but do more independent research.” He and his fellow union organizers in the student body hope that a victory at Harvard, in addition to the win earlier this month at Columbia University (currently being challenging by that university), will embolden students organizing at other private institutions.