Historians Kirsten Weld and Erik Baker Interviewed About Harvard Graduate Worker Strike in Chronicle of Higher EducationHistorians in the News
tags: strikes, historians, labor history, graduate workers
Harvard graduate students are on strike. On December 3, more than 4,000 members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW hit the picket line after negotiations with the university hit an impasse. The union, which the university formally recognized in May 2018, has been negotiating with Harvard officials for over a year. HGSU-UAW is demanding better pay and more benefits to address what graduate workers have reported as unmanageable costs of living — covering basic necessities like housing, child care, and mental-health care — in one of the most expensive areas of the country.
Also at issue are the university's procedures for handling harassment and discrimination charges. As reported by James S. Bikales and Ruoqi Zhang at The Harvard Crimson, “The union has proposed that student workers be given an option to raise sexual harassment and discrimination complaints through a union grievance procedure — a dispute resolution mechanism outside of current internal Harvard channels, and one that could eventually lead to third-party arbitration in some cases.” For graduate workers, the importance of ensuring the availability of such mechanisms was made apparent with the university’s handling of allegations brought against former professor Jorge Domínguez. The administration also raised eyebrows for graduate workers and many faculty by asking departments to monitor graduate workers’ participation in the strike.
Striking graduate workers include Shom Mazumder, a Ph.D. student in government, and Erik Baker, a Ph.D. student in the history of science. Joined by Kirsten Weld, a history professor, they spoke to The Chronicle’s Maximilian Alvarez about the strike, the vexed question of whether faculty are management, and the actions of the Harvard administration.
Why are you striking?
Baker: The other issues that we’re fighting for have been about the cost and access to health care, as well as basic compensation for teaching and research work. This is one of the most expensive areas to live in the entire United States. And graduate students are receiving compensation that makes it challenging just to afford the cost of housing. We heard from members who are regularly spending 70 to 80 percent of their entire paycheck on housing alone.
These issues are familiar from the workers’ movement, whether that’s workers at McDonald’s, or hotel workers who have been fighting for protections from sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of race or nationality.
A lot of the rhetoric that opponents of our strike have used to try to delegitimize our action has emphasized the differences between grad-student workers and other kinds of workers. It makes sense that this is the kind of tactic that would be deployed on this campus, where so many members of the faculty, and members of the local community, are politically progressive, and may even do research themselves into the benefits of unions. In order to turn them against the strike, it’s necessary to argue that what’s going on right now is fundamentally different from what’s going on in the rest of the labor movement. But at the end of the day, we are workers who come into work, do work that makes this university a ton of money, and we’re fighting for exactly the same issues that unionized workers are fighting for all around the country.
Weld: One thing that’s notable about what the Harvard Grad Students Union has been able to accomplish is that it’s a relatively new formation in the higher-ed landscape in the U.S. If you look at the Ivies and other big private universities like NYU, there have been organizing drives ongoing for, in some cases, decades. At Yale, where I went to grad school, that dates back to the early 1990s. What I think has been impressive about what’s happened at Harvard is how quickly the bargaining unit has gone from nonexistence to full-on, no-time-limit strike. From an organizing perspective, that’s very impressive.
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