The Harvard School of Union-Busting

Harvard is enlisting faculty in its drive to prevent graduate workers from unionizing.

Harvard University. Chris Oates / Flickr

Harvard’s grad students have launched a union campaign, and Harvard’s administration has launched its response. Internal documents from the administration to the faculty, which were leaked to me, reveal some fascinating developments in these increasingly common anti-union drives at elite Ivy League universities.

First, university administrations have grown highly sensitized to any perception that they or their faculty are using intimidation and coercion to bust unions of academic workers. So sensitized that they’ve drafted a set of four rules, replete with a handy acronym, just in case the faculty can’t remember to keep things cool.

The basic rule is: No “TIPS”

No Threats

No Interrogation

No Promises

No Surveillance

You have to appreciate the hilarity. Like most elite faculty, Harvard’s professors probably oppose a union of graduate students because they think it will sully the intellectual virtues of America’s most prestigious university. Yet here they are being instructed by that most prestigious university to oppose that union with the help of slogans and acronyms.

And believe it or not: that’s the good news. The use of fear and favor can be fatal to a union drive, and it’s good that at least some portion of the faculty is being told not to go there. (Whether that message sticks once the drive really gets going is another matter.) What’s more, it shows how conscious Harvard’s administrators — really, lawyers (and probably not even in-house lawyers; there are firms that specialize in this stuff) — are that the law and the courts may not be on their side on this issue.

Second, and even more interesting, is how, having explained to the world’s leading luminaries of light and reason that they should not terrorize the workers and students with whom they work (and don’t assume these luminaries don’t need that explained to them), the administration proceeds to instruct the faculty in what they should do.

Do Share the University’s Record on Stipends and Benefits, where known. Provide information to students about the array of benefits that they presently receive, including the University’s record of steady improvement over time — without a union.

Do Explain the Disadvantages of Union Membership. There are economic costs to joining a union, including the likelihood that they will be required to pay annual dues. There are also non-economic costs, including the intrusion of a third party into an academic relationship, adding a new political entity (the United Auto Workers) with its own agenda to existing relations.

Do Explain the Collective Bargaining Process. The process of collective bargaining requires parties to meet at reasonable times and places to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions. However, the law does not dictate what must go into a contract. Thus, the union cannot guarantee any specific outcome, such as an improvement in stipend or other benefits, as these matters would become subject to collective bargaining. If there is a recognized union of graduate students, the University would bargain in good faith, but the University cannot be forced to accept union demands. The University would also be allowed to propose its own changes to the status quo in negotiations. You can also mention that negotiations for a first contract usually take a year or longer during which time there could not be any unilateral changes to the status quo, including changes in compensation.

Do Explain the Election Process. In order for a union to file a petition for an election with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], it must obtain authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the employees in an appropriate unit. Students have the right to decide whether or not to sign a union authorization card, and even if they do sign a card and an election is later held, they don’t have to vote in favor of the union. If there is an election, it would be conducted by the NLRB and would be a secret ballot election. The election is decided by a majority of votes cast, just like a political election. Also, because the majority of first and second year students do not teach or serve as research assistants, they may not be considered eligible members of a graduate student union.

Do Correct Inaccurate or Misleading Union Statements and Campaign Materials. Inform students of inaccuracies and provide the correct information, if known. Remind students that the union may make promises, but it cannot guarantee anything.

Do Provide Information about the Union’s Record. Inform students about the union’s local, regional, and national track record representing graduate students, if you are aware of it.

What’s fascinating about this to-do list is just how much, without realizing it, Harvard’s administration has conceded the union’s case. In two ways: by having the faculty talk to grad workers about issues like pay and benefits, Harvard’s administration is conceding that grad workers think like other workers. They care about things like pay and benefits.

But Harvard is also conceding something about the faculty. The premise of grad union drives is that grad students are workers and the administration is management. Where the faculty stand in all that is usually a matter of some dispute. Most grad unions, for understandable reasons, try to reassure the faculty that they don’t view them as management, but as potential allies. Most administrations, for understandable reasons, try to deny that the faculty are management. Most faculty haven’t a clue what they are.

But what is Harvard doing here but treating the faculty as if they are management, as if they are the enforcers of the administration’s policies? In the same way that the moguls of General Motors or Hyatt or Amazon instruct their front-line managers in how to talk to workers — often using the same kind of boilerplate that Harvard is using here — Harvard is training its managers in how to talk to the workers there.

Like most scholars, Harvard’s faculty are used to thinking of themselves as independent minds. They’ve engaged in intense, often solitary, study of their chosen fields for decades. They’ve learned to take nothing on faith; they examine the evidence and come to their own opinions.

Yet here is Harvard senior management providing middle management with a CliffsNotes guide to American labor law, and expecting leading scholars of Shakespeare, colonial America, urban poverty, and the European Union to repeat its talking points to their students. If that doesn’t convince the Harvard faculty that, from the university’s perspective, they really are management, no amount of evidence and reason will.