Harvard Student Workers Are Prepared to Strike

Aparna Gopalan

Harvard is the world’s richest university — and Harvard’s student workers say they are being paid sub-living wages. A Harvard Graduate Student Union leader tells Jacobin about the union’s struggle with the university and why they’re prepared to strike.

Harvard Management Company recently announced that the university’s endowment returned 33.6 percent on its investments, growing to $53.2 billion, in the past fiscal year. (Somesh Kesarla Suresh / Unsplash)

Interview by
Piper Winkler

Harvard Management Company recently announced that the university’s endowment returned 33.6 percent on its investments, growing to $53.2 billion, in the past fiscal year. During the same year, as COVID-19 emptied Harvard’s campus and moved teaching online, many of Harvard’s student workers struggled to make ends meet. Without basic health care provisions, raises to match the rising cost of living in Cambridge, and access to impartial investigation of harassment cases, Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) members will go on strike this Wednesday if their demands are not met.

In an interview with Jacobin’s Piper Winkler, Aparna Gopalan, a member of HGSU’s Executive Board, Bargaining Committee, and the union’s staff, describes HGSU’s journey from its first contract to the current strike authorization vote, the tactics Harvard’s administration uses to divide campus workers and break strikes, and the key demands that Harvard’s student workers are willing to strike for.

Piper Winkler

In late September, 92 percent of Harvard Graduate Student Union members voted to authorize a strike. What led to this decision?

Aparna Gopalan

It started with our first contract, which was signed in the extenuating circumstances of COVID-19. We always saw our first contract as a stopgap, because it didn’t include all the things that we knew were absolutely necessary. It won us some protections and got us formalized [as a union], then we planned to come back to the table. We only signed a one-year contract, and then we would start negotiating again. This is a continuation of our previous work; it’s not a new set of demands.

We started bargaining with Harvard in March 2021. Before we began bargaining, we carried out a bargaining survey. We sent it off to our whole unit, and they gave us feedback on the key things that they wanted to see in our contract. There were a lot of things that we have already been fighting for, like recourse for harassment and discrimination, as well as raises that match the cost of living in Cambridge. People wanted dental insurance, better childcare, better vision care, and other things related to health care. With those survey results, we voted on these bargaining goals, and then we went back to the table to start negotiating with Harvard.

Harvard has been more prompt about coming to the table, but they don’t bring much to that table. We’ve heard a lot of the same kinds of arguments we heard last time: They claim financial distress because of COVID-19, but we know that the endowment is growing. This year, it’s projected to grow by 20 percent.

Piper Winkler

Has the HGSU bargaining committee argued that the growing endowment should be used for better workplace protections? How has Harvard’s administration responded?

Aparna Gopalan

We’ve pushed them into that corner. We ask them, “If you’re not going to give us these raises, can you not afford it?” At that point, they get very careful, because they don’t want to put on the record that they don’t have money — it’s really important that the world knows that they have money. They always say, “We’re not making an inability-to-pay argument.” When we push back, they say that giving us raises isn’t financially prudent, and they don’t need to do it.

We’ve brought up that the endowment has grown, but the administration sets that aside. They talk about all the costs that they incurred during COVID-19 when they had to reimburse students for room and board, or when they had to maintain buildings that were not generating revenue. For them, as for many higher-education administrators, the endowment is out of the question. They don’t include it in their calculations.

Piper Winkler

One of the most memorable moments of Harvard’s COVID response was in early March 2020, when Harvard president Lawrence Bacow contracted COVID and immediately reassured students in an email that he and his family were quarantining. Later, it was discovered that he had campus workers clean his house over a week after Harvard shut down, and that he had infected these workers with COVID. How have student workers been affected by the school’s pandemic-era belt-tightening?

Aparna Gopalan

Now that we’re back on campus, there is overwhelming pressure to keep learning in person, no matter what happens. There was a huge surge of COVID cases when the semester first started, but we were told relentlessly, “You have to stay in person.”

A rally of the Harvard graduate student workers’ union. (Harvard Graduate Students Union — United Auto Workers Local 5118)

It seems like the deans are pressuring the senior faculty, who are pressuring the junior faculty, who are pressuring the grad students. Personally, I’ve been in conversations where grad students will ask faculty, “What happens if I’m afraid that I’ve contracted COVID? Do I do my class on Zoom?” And the faculty will respond, “The university’s very strong preference is that you teach in person.” That’s the line that they’ve been given, and they have to repeat it.

Harvard only mandated masks for all indoor teaching activities after the semester started and there was a COVID spike. They didn’t go into the semester with that policy. They have tried to go back to normal, their “normal,” as soon as they can — at whatever cost. A lot of graduate students have been afraid during the beginning of the semester.

Just because COVID cases aren’t spiking at Harvard doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is isolated from Harvard, or that COVID is gone. The union has been doing a health and safety survey of workers, asking them how it can help them with whatever accommodations they might need, because Harvard has not been proactive about protecting people who are immunocompromised or who cannot come to campus, whether by offering hybrid learning or by giving those people accommodations.

Piper Winkler

Before and during COVID-19, student workers in HGSU have devised an important list of supports that they need to do their jobs safely. How have Harvard administrators responded to their demands?

Aparna Gopalan

They haven’t responded in good faith. It’s hard to say that they’re bargaining in good faith when student workers are asking for a raise that matches things like inflation, rent in Cambridge, and the average compensation of our peer institutions. We’re not even asking to get paid more than everybody else.

Comparing Harvard’s graduate student pay to that of fifteen schools similar to it in size and stature, and factoring in the area cost of living, Harvard is not paying its workers as much as its peer institutions. We have been asking for parity, and in response to that, they came back to us with a zero percent raise three times. We would counter that offer, and they would come back with the zero percent raise again.

They tried to move to a structure in which certain people would get bonuses, and other people would get nothing. It took over a month of negotiating to move them off of the zero percent raise. This has shown us that good faith is not there.

Piper Winkler

How did HGSU decide to move toward a strike authorization vote, and how did it organize for the vote?

Aparna Gopalan

By September, we had been negotiating for six months. This time, we insisted that all our bargaining sessions be open to observers; we had to negotiate for a month and a half with Harvard to make that happen, but it eventually happened.

We noticed that the administrators felt pressure during the bargaining sessions because of how many people showed up; there would be 150 people in a Zoom room, putting them under a level of scrutiny that they were not expecting in the beginning. This stress began causing them to move.

In June, we wrote a letter signed by 650 people, saying, “We’ve been watching you during bargaining for the past six months. If you don’t move toward the things we’re asking for, we’re going to go on strike.” It was presented to Harvard at a bargaining session by HGSU rank-and-file members. After that letter was delivered, we started to see the most substantive progress at the bargaining table.

Harvard came back to us with some considerable offers. They moved from the position that it’s not their job to provide us with dental and said that they would cover 75 percent of premiums — but not for all graduate students. They always want to divide the unit between people who are salaried and people who are not salaried. But at least there was some movement in our direction.

This was how we started to realize that they respond only to pressure. We knew that before, but it has remained true. We know that authorizing a strike is where our power comes from. This is what our membership wanted to do, because we can’t settle another contract without the things that we need. We can’t keep bargaining every single year for basic rights.

Piper Winkler

One of HGSU’s biggest demands, the focus of a rally earlier this year, is for “real recourse.” Can you explain that demand?

Aparna Gopalan

In a nutshell, it’s about the fox not guarding the henhouse. Like other academic institutions, Harvard has a rampant culture of sexual harassment, racial harassment, and power-based harassment from faculty and other people in positions of power.

The process for dealing with this harassment is Title IX, which is completely internal. It’s not a process where the student worker can trust that the people adjudicating are neutral and not friends with the harasser or invested in covering up the case because of the potential reputational harm that might come to Harvard.

This system is unfair by design — it has severe conflicts of interest. This has played out in case after case. Title IX proceedings go on for a long time; in the proceedings, survivors can be retraumatized as they bear the burden of proof. They’re striving against professors who have top-notch lawyers, the time and money to invest in saving themselves, and relationships with administrators across the university.

There’s no justice in this system. We’re asking for a third-party arbitrator as an option for survivors of harassment. If I were a survivor, I wouldn’t want to go through Title IX. Friends of mine have gone through it, and it’s messed up their lives for years. I would want to go to a third-party arbitrator, rather than one affiliated with Harvard, to investigate the case. It sounds so simple, and it is. They just haven’t moved on it for as long as the union has existed.

Piper Winkler

Fair pay is another of HGSU’s key demands. How have student workers been affected by the lack of fair pay, both before and during COVID-19?

Aparna Gopalan

Fair pay is a very bread-and-butter demand. Every union is fighting for workers to get paid fairly, but behind our demand is a whole host of inequalities that are compounded by pay inequality. International students have been hit really hard during COVID-19; they have lost access to the campus jobs that they worked to keep themselves afloat.

A lot of graduate students have second and third jobs in Cambridge, working in cafés, tutoring students, or whatever they can get their hands on. And that was all gone [during the pandemic]. The worst impact was borne by people who are not authorized to work elsewhere in the United States as well as people without the time to work extra jobs during COVID, once their kids were home all the time.

This is what we saw in our bargaining survey. When people filled it out, they could identify which priorities mattered most to them. The form also had a comment section, where they could write more about these priorities. Over 90 percent of people made use of the comment section. They told wrenching stories of not being able to make rent, suffering from COVID and long COVID, living paycheck to paycheck, and losing other jobs.

Fair pay is overdue. I don’t understand how a job based at Harvard University pays less than $40,000 a year. I often do this math: The rent in Cambridge is $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year, and childcare in Cambridge is around $2,000 a month. You’re already at $48,000 of expenses. This is a survival issue.

Another of our key demands is union security. In our proposals, we have asked for all student workers to contribute to the union financially, pooling resources together for the union that is getting everybody raises and real recourse.

Not only has Harvard opposed that and refused to engage with it at the table, but it has also misrepresented it in misleading, alarmist ways to the whole student body, saying that HGSU wants to force them to pay fines, or to go against their beliefs. These are far-right framings of union security on a campus where every other union has union security.

I think Harvard administrators know the long-term cost of union security for them. It’s going to be pretty high, because workers in unions with union security make around $1,500 more per year over the course of their career.

Piper Winkler

Why are some forms of union protections guaranteed to other campus workers but denied to student workers? Is this move part of the bigger goal of dividing different forms of labor on campus that could stand together?

Aparna Gopalan

Every time Harvard denies the graduate student workers something, whether it’s union security or real recourse — something that all the other unions have — they’re lowering the floor. They’re establishing a new low at Harvard, and as we’ve seen in the fight for real recourse, this low is then used to go back to the other unions and undermine their right to that protection, whether by asking, “Do you really need this?” or by refusing to engage in arbitration. Harvard did this during the pandemic, and the clerical and technical workers’ union fought back against them.

Like all corporations, Harvard wants to race to the bottom. If HGSU is kept at the bottom, then the administration can try to bring everyone else down to that level. They can get away with it, and they’re setting a good precedent for their own future as a union employer, because they can bust all of the unions once they’ve busted one.

Piper Winkler

How has Harvard framed the possibility of an HGSU strike to its undergraduate students? How does the union want nonworker students to understand their place in that strike?

Aparna Gopalan

Harvard’s perspective on the strike is that, when we are recruiting strikers, they’re recruiting scabs. They’re trying to turn everyone they can reach into a scab, whether these people are undergraduates, faculty, or parents. They’ll take whoever they can get to do the work of strikebreaking.

They send a lot of emails to the whole campus, which talk about contingency plans for striking, what to do in case of disrupted instruction, and all the ways you can prepare for a strike in advance. These emails always say, “Ensuring your safety and your academic progress is our main priority.”

All of this is strikebreaking. But it’s not treated as morally or ethically dubious. And none of it is seen as doing harm to the students Harvard is trying to protect. But if your teaching staff are literally on an empty stomach at the end of the month — and there are cases of workers who just don’t have money because they have to spend it all — that’s not a high-quality education.

Harvard has represented all our demands as very unfair to undergrads: Student workers getting real recourse would be unfair to all the students who aren’t working, because they don’t have real recourse. In this case, Harvard should just give everyone real recourse. What’s stopping you? You can give it to everybody. This is part of their effort to pit people against each other.

Piper Winkler

Given its commitment to in-person education after a year of remote learning, how is Harvard preparing for a strike?

Aparna Gopalan

Harvard has said that, in case building access is disrupted, teaching will go back on Zoom. I don’t know what they’re imagining — it sounds like they’re imagining that we’ll just take over entire buildings. It sounds kind of cool. I don’t know what they imagine the strike will be like, but I imagine they will try to use Zoom in whatever ways they can to break the strike. Using Zoom allows you to bring in scabs who are not even physically present.

Piper Winkler

You’ve said that while the union is trying to recruit strikers, Harvard is trying to recruit scabs. What does it look like for an undergraduate student to be a scab? What does it look like for a faculty member to be a scab? And how can these groups show solidarity with the union?

Aparna Gopalan

First, undergrads are also part of our bargaining units. And there’s one obvious way for them to scab. The university has said in their emails that, if there’s a really large class and all the graduate teaching fellows are on strike, the administration will turn to whoever is left over — in many cases, undergrads — and ask them to do the grading, or whatever makeup work there is to do, for extra pay, or even at higher rates of pay.

Harvard has the money to break strikes, whether to pay scabs or pay police. Undergrads can be scabs just by replacing our labor, taking over the work, and making sure that the disruption is not felt. One way they can avoid being scabs is by refusing to replace our labor, even if, for whatever reason, they aren’t going on strike.

Don’t replace our labor. Don’t undercut anyone who goes on strike. And the same goes for faculty. Faculty are tasked with replacing the labor, too, because if grades are due, the faculty have to do it. If students have questions and the graduate teaching fellows (TFs) are not available, the students will ask the faculty.

Faculty, especially the tenured ones, have the power to refuse that. They don’t have to replace our labor. They don’t have to make students feel like everything’s normal or like nothing is happening. I don’t see what pressure is on them to scab. They can hold out, make sure that their graduate students and workers have a better workplace, and then go back to their presumed normal.

Undergrads are encouraged to scab in informal ways, by reporting TFs who might be striking and complaining about it. That is, not complaining about the university not bargaining in good faith but complaining about individual graduate teaching fellows or using their status as paying customers to get the striking workers in trouble.

Faculty do this, too. They can individually intimidate or retaliate against specific workers. This happens all the time. Faculty can make veiled threats — “I’m the one who’s going to write your letters for you to get a job or a fellowship, so watch out.” There are so many ways, both formal and informal, that it’s normal and encouraged to break a strike at Harvard.

Piper Winkler

Now that HGSU is authorized to call a strike, what comes next if Harvard keeps coming to the table with proposals that won’t cut it?

Aparna Gopalan

As the union, we remain committed to trying to avoid a strike because that is disruptive for us. We want to keep teaching. It would be great if we could keep teaching and have dental care. I don’t know why those two things are pitted against each other.

If we don’t see serious intent from Harvard to move toward our positions, we’re going to go on strike. We’ve been authorized to call one, and we won’t be afraid to use that power if they push us to it. They’re pushing us to that point.