Auto Workers are unionizing at Harvard University
Many of Harvard's main academic and administrative buildings are seated in Harvard Yard. Thousands of non-tenure-track faculty at Harvard filed for official union recognition Friday. | Marina Qu, Harvard Crimson

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —The United Auto Workers are unionizing at Harvard, or, to be precise, among the prestigious and influential university’s non-tenure-track research and teaching employees.

“In a miraculous come from behind winnnn we @HAWorkers have our elections in early April!! Totally thrilled to be able to VOTE YES and get to bargaining the first historic contract for HLS clinical workers,” tweeted law school worker Rebecca Greening, one of the lead organizers of the drive.

The workers will vote on April 3-4 as the university decided not to contest the election petition filed by its postdocs, research associates, lecturers and preceptors in departments ranging from the undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the Divinity School and the Law School.

So those non-tenure track workers will vote on whether to unionize with Harvard Academic Workers (HAW-UAW). The university told the Harvard Crimson it would not run a union-busting campaign, but HAW-UAW is skeptical of that promise.

The same day, a tweet revealed the separate Harvard Union Of Residential Advisors filed a National Labor Relations Board petition for a vote among 345 resident tutors, proctors, and house aides. “This the third representation petition filed in the past week seeking to represent resident advisors,” it said.

The reasons for the HAW-UAW organizing drive show the Harvard non-tenured academic workers, like their colleagues at other higher education institutions nationwide, believe they’re underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated. They’re also subject the vagaries of instant firings.

And like exploited port truckers, adjunct professors, warehouse workers, fast food workers, retail workers and others, the Harvard workers have turned to unions, or striking, or voting with their feet against corporate greed. The corporate greed is particularly striking in Harvard’s case. Its endowment is the largest in the U.S.—so large that virtually every student could attend Harvard tuition-free.

Questions remain over how many workers could come to the polls. The union says up to 6000 are eligible. The Harvard Crimson puts the number at 3100 non-tenure-track faculty in the undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Medical School, and Divinity School combined, and a smaller separate unit of 110 workers at Harvard Law School clinics.

Key issues in the organizing drive include housing costs, as Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the nation, child care costs and limits on tenure ranging from two to six years combined in all non-tenure track positions, depending on which Harvard department(s) the worker toils in.

“Median annual cost of full-time care for one infant in Middlesex and Norfolk Counties is $26,409,” the union website says. “But childcare centers on the campus charge as much as $42,720.” Harvard pays a big share of child-care costs for its tenure-track faculty—and its bosses—but nothing for others.

“With a seat at the table, we can fight for the much-needed improvements that Harvard’s academic worker parents need to care for their families while they carry out the university’s core academic functions,” the union declares.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.