Workers, not apprentices: Harvard graduate students strike

Dec. 2019 Harvard (Kathryn Kuhar:Crimson)
Striking graduate students march past the statue of John Harvard, who has a union picket sign in his lap. (Kathryn S. Kuhar / Harvard Crimson)


 The Harvard graduate-students union has announced that its strike will end at midnight on Dec. 31. A negotiating session joined by federal mediators will convene on Jan. 7. In an article written before the announcement, Ruwan Munasinghe explores the issues behind the strike:

“The [academic] job system is functioning exactly as it has evolved to function—delivering cheap instructional labor precisely when it is needed, disposing of experienced instructional labor when it becomes more expensive, breeding compliance in all its participants. The last year in which the notion of apprenticeship had any validity for the profession was 1970. Since then, the country has not had the will to produce the number of full-time faculty positions required to meet its instructional needs.” — Cary Nelson

For the past four weeks, Graduate Workers at Harvard University have been on strike against the richest university administration on the planet. Through the snow and cold of the New England winter, the graduate workers have been out picketing for a fair contract since Dec. 3.

Graduate students at Harvard are unionized within the UAW. The Harvard Graduate Students Union was formed in April 2018, and the unionized workers almost immediately entered into negotiations with Harvard for a fair contract. After a year of negotiations, the students felt that they were at an impasse that could only be resolved through a strike. The strike authorization was voted on in October and passed with 90% in agreement ( A couple of bargaining sessions were held between the vote and the strike deadline. No agreements were made.

The demands

The main disagreements are over compensation, funds for health care and child care, and grievance procedures for sexual harassment and discrimination. The university is proposing a minimum wage of $15 for researchers and $17 for Teaching Assistants and all graduate workers are to receive a raise in pay between 2.5% and 3% over the next two years. Students say this is inadequate and does not par well with peer institutions.

Graduate workers are demanding that there be an outlet for sexual harassment and discrimination grievances to be dealt with outside the university channels. This proposed “third party procedure” is being shot down by the university in favor of the current procedure of complaints being adjudicated through the university’s title IX processes. The workers complain that these processes are inadequate to ensure their safety at Harvard.

For health care, Harvard has offered a pool of funds for all of its graduate workers for health insurance totaling $300,000 and another pool for dental health plan premium payments totaling $100,000. Through the previous two bargaining sessions, the university has raised these amounts by $50,000 and $35,000 respectively. HGSU-UAW has described these increases as marginal.

The union is asking for 90% dental premium coverage. At NYU and Columbia (two schools that saw important graduate union fights in the past two decades), the university covers 100% of dental premium costs. ( The workers are demanding more money for mental health and, perhaps most critically, an end to a cap on the number of visits to mental health specialists that graduate students can make. There are other demands that focus on graduate workers with children—paid leave, child support, insurance for dependents.

Richest school on the planet 

These demands are legitimate and very reasonable. In universities across the country an increasing amount of labor value is extracted from graduate workers. For a fraction of the cost of what it would be if schools had most of the labor being done by full-time faculty (as was the case in U.S. universities in the increasingly distant past of 50 or 60 years ago), students (both graduate and undergraduate) and non-tenured faculty make the university run. Over 70% of faculty positions at higher education institutions in the U.S. are held by non-tenure track employees. ( The universities need a large supply of obedient workers who live in precarity but do the most important academic labor of the university—namely, research and teaching.

The graduate workers at Harvard are part of a growing but sporadic and localized movement of graduate students pushing back against this conscious move from university administrations. Austerity and privatization are turning universities into knowledge factories, and graduate students at Harvard and everywhere across the U.S. deserve to fight back against attacks on their lives and working conditions. The signs carried by the graduate students on picket are illustrative of their fight. Some examples read, “Harvard, Support Survivors,” “#MeToo,” “Racial Justice Now,” and “My Mental Health Is Not Up For Debate.”

Harvard has the largest endowment and budget of any university in the world. Harvard can afford the increases that graduate workers are demanding. Cambridge and Boston are some of the most expensive places to live in the state of Massachusetts (and even the country), and a $15 minimum wage is simply not enough.

The demands of better protections from sexual harassment and violence come from the real-life situation at the school. Within the past year, Harvard has seen some high profile cases of allegations of sexual assault lead to discipline. Ronald G. Fryer, one of Harvard’s highest paid Economics Faculty members, was suspended for sexual misconduct with at least five employees (

Investigations into the case of Jorge I. Dominguez concluded in mid-2019 and found the longtime scholar at Harvard guilty of sexual misconduct. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (, sexual harassment from Dominguez occurred with at least 10 women (including graduate workers) (

As Tracey Rosen, a social studies lecturer, explained in a video for HGSU-UAW, “Student workers need protection from harassment and discrimination because they are extremely vulnerable. They have nobody to advocate for them. And these relationships between faculty and students can get very intimate and a lot of boundaries can be crossed and if there is no third party to explain what the boundaries are … they are really on their own.” In another video a student expressed how difficult it is for graduate student workers who have to care for children.

In a survey of Harvard students released in October 2019, over 39% of respondents had either witnessed or directly experienced a case of sexual harassment at Harvard ( [pg 30].

Relatedly, many Harvard graduate students suffer from mental health issues. According to a study of four departments within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, up to 14% of graduate students reported having moderate to severe anxiety and 12% reported moderate to severe depression.(

In response to the strike, Harvard sent out an email effectively threatening departments to make TA positions for graduate students contingent on individual promises not to continue striking into the spring semester ( This is potentially illegal as it violates section VII of the National Labor Relations Act prohibiting employees from either discouraging or encouraging union activities [1] ( The university is also appealing to a federal agency to mediate between the workers and Harvard (

It is important to understand the context of the strike at Harvard. In 2016 UNITE-HERE Local 26 dining workers at Harvard went on strike for better pay. This was the first workers strike at Harvard in 36 years (

There is also a lot of activism going on at Harvard. Harvard Divest recently made national and global headlines for its protest at the Harvard-Yale football game in New Haven, where protesters teamed up with Yale protesters to storm the field at halftime during the game. On campus there are bottom-up efforts to have the Arthur Sackler campus art museum change its name. The man whom the museum is named after helped develop the drug OxyContin ( There is also activism for the creation of a faculty-spearheaded creation of an ethnic studies department at Harvard. Recently, a language and literature associate professor, Lorgia Garcia Pena, whose work focuses on ethnic studies, was denied tenure, to the chagrin of some students and staff ( There is also currently an ongoing investigation into alleged racial discrimination in Harvard’s admissions policies (

Workers, not apprentices!

Graduate student organizing and unionization is an important way to fight back against university administrations in the U.S. There have been many important graduate student fights in the past handful of years, mostly in public schools. Graduate workers unionization is less prevalent at private schools. Often unionization is through larger unions like SEIU and UAW.

Graduate worker unions arose in the 1970s and 1980s [2]. The right of graduate workers at private higher education institutions to unionize has been in flux for the past 20 years. In 1998, graduate students at New York University sought union recognition and filed a petition with the NLRB for election. In 2000, the NLRB decided that graduate workers at private schools are employees and are therefore protected by the NLRA. This was reversed only four years later in a decision involving Brown University. In a case involving Columbia student workers, the decision was again reversed in 2016. This latest decision helped start a rise in graduate worker unionization across the country.

Graduate-worker unionization at Yale and Layola are important examples of organizing at private schools. The decision in 2016 was met with stiff opposition from the most powerful university administrations in the country. Yale, Brown, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Princeton, University Of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Harvard filed an amicus brief asking that the NLRB reverse its 2016 decision and, instead, consider graduate workers as students and not employees (

The Trump administration has proposed that the NLRB reverse the 2016 decision. Last September, the NLRB issued a rule that attempts to deny the right to unionize to teaching and research assistants and thereby exclude graduate workers from the National Labor Relations Act. The Harvard HGSU-UAW strike is effectively a protest at this move from the NLRB (

Under conditions of austerity, privatization, and corporate dominance, higher learning institutions have become knowledge factories. The most important academic labor for universities is done by student workers through low-paying part-time positions that the university controls in a highly exploitative manner. The thinking is that graduate students are in more precarious positions; they are concerned about the job market and getting ahead academically and are, therefore, likely to be more obedient to the administration. They are said to be academic apprentices.

The university needs a large supply of obedient workers who live in precarity but produce labor value that sustains the school’s operation. Non-tenured track faculty makes up two-thirds of the teaching workforce in U.S. higher education. At some institutions, this ratio is usually a lot worse as positions of tenure are being squeezed out of existence. Much of the teaching at universities across the country is done by TAs and part-time adjuncts, who work multiple jobs and commute between different institutions many times in a normal day.

The same factors that create graduate student precarity are also the roots of the erosion of faculty governance, rising class sizes, rising tuition, and curriculum and academic infrastructure at universities tailored to (or even completely bought out by) large corporations.

All workers, faculty, and students at Harvard must be compelled to stand in solidarity with Harvard graduate workers. Faculty will be especially pressed to “cross the picket line” by withholding support for HGSU-UAW and even reporting on students who strike. Indeed, especially in the earlier examples of graduate worker unionization, many faculty members were loath to solidarize with TA and GA unions.

Long-time CUNY faculty member Stanley Aronowitz noted the lack of faculty solidarity at strike rallies at Yale as graduate workers there went on strike in the 1990s—one of the most important battles of graduate workers in that decade: “I observed only a handful of faculty in attendance … I was informed that, while there were faculty supporters who were unable to attend, their numbers were pitifully small. In fact, most faculty were either absent from the fight or, in an alarming number of cases, actively sided with the administration. … These professors were living examples of what the Supreme Court had found in the Yeshiva decision, which denied professors at private universities and colleges access to protections of the National Labor Relations Act.”[3]

The 1980 Yeshiva Supreme Court decision stipulated that university faculty at private institutions were not workers but rather managers, due to their participation in decision-making. This was a significant barrier to private faculty unionization in following years. As time has passed, the “faculty-as-management” justification for the Yeshiva decision has become increasingly ridiculous as faculty autonomy is fast disappearing at both public and private institutions.

Non-graduate faculty and graduate workers at universities across the country have a common enemy in the university administrations. A large portion of the faculty at higher-learning institutions hold insecure positions, such as part-time adjuncts, who have little to no benefits. The tenured professor is an increasingly rare phenomenon. For some, these conditions instill the short-term need to kiss up to administration. However, only organization—which will necessarily include solidarity with other workers who face even poorer conditions under the university administrations—can halt the worsening of conditions for faculty.

Likewise, non-academic workers and graduate-student workers must solidarize. Though non-academic workers often suffer oppression that often goes beyond the exploitation of grad students, these two sections of the labor force must join hands to fight against the administration and support each other’s economic struggles. This solidarity was already demonstrated as UPS workers momentarily decided to halt deliveries on campus.

The Harvard grad union sent out an e-mail message to all Harvard faculty: “Our core request for all faculty is to support student workers by not replacing their work.” The e-mail went on, “We encourage all faculty to express solidarity with student workers to the best of their ability by contacting administrators to demand compromise; explaining the strike to undergraduate students; canceling classes or moving them off campus; withholding final grades for classes staffed with student TFs until the strike ends; and joining us on the picket line” (

The labor movement as a whole must show solidarity with the HGSU-UAW strike and all efforts to organize graduate workers. Universities do not operate in a bubble; they are an arena of capitalist exploitation. Corporatized universities want to label graduate labor as merely“‘training” and “education” in order to do what is required at any corporation—cut down labor costs and extract as much labor value from workers as possible. The struggles of graduate students are an important part of today’s labor movement.

The graduate unionization efforts of University of Illinois-Chicago, the recent wildcat strikes of UCSA and the #7KOS movement of rank-and-file students, faculty and staff at CUNY in New York City are all important steps in the right direction ( ( These struggles are not merely economic. As Harvard graduate students have been showing, the fight for rights of graduate students is part of the fight against sexual violence (which is particularly rampant at universities), racial discrimination and other battles for social justice. The Harvard strike is occurring as schools like Syracuse and University of Connecticut are in the midst of protests against racism ( (

University of Connecticut YSA 

In solidarity with the graduate students of Harvard, the UConn Young Socialist Alliance (at University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn.) made a video of solidarity, expressing the importance of student-labor solidarity with all workers on campuses and around the world to combat the university administrations and the U.S. ruling class as a whole ( UConn YSA has been active in graduate student labor struggles at UConn and actively participated in the efforts of UConn graduate students to unionize and fight for a fair contract in 2018. UConn YSA is going into the spring semester ready to stand with UConn post-docs as they fight for a new contract.


[1] Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works : Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York University Press, 2008.

[2] The question of legality centers around whether or not the email’s language of recommending that employers demand from striking graduate workers a commitment to a start date constitutes a violation of workers right to strike under the NLRA.

[3] Stanley Aronowitz explains how to conditions for teaching assistant unions arose from objective conditions and changes in work conditions at universities: “In the grim wasteland of the 1970’s, university administrations were solving the problem of expanding undergraduate enrollments, not by hiring new full-time faculty, but by increasing class size in lower-division courses and pressing TAs to reach sections of fifty students or more.”

[4] Aronowitz, Stanley. “The Knowledge Factory : Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning.” (Beacon Press) 2000.



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