[Marxism] Graduate workers at Harvard are striking. Here’s what they want, and how they plan to get it.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 06:14:37 MST 2019

Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 17, 2019
Graduate workers at Harvard are striking. Here’s what they want, and how 
they plan to get it.

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 

Why are you striking?

Mazumder: There was a tenured professor in the government department, 
Jorge Domínguez, against whom charges of sexual harassment and assault 
were made, which led to a Title IX investigation. It was discovered that 
he had done this first a long time ago. Even after the administration 
nominally admonished him, he still rose to pretty high positions in the 
provost’s office.

A big part of this fight — in addition to the basic demands around 
health care, dental, parental-leave policies — is protecting student 
workers in the future from professors like Jorge Domínguez.

One of the key bargaining issues has been this third-party grievance 
procedure. That’s a standard type of contract that Harvard has with its 
other unionized employees. But the administration has not budged at all 
on allowing for a third-party arbitration mechanism. So we’re stuck on that.

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.

What’s the foundational conflict between the grad-student workers and 
the Harvard administration when it comes to things like third-party 
arbitration for grievances as an alternative to Title IX procedures?

Mazumder: At the end of the day, Title IX is a liability-mitigation 
institution. It does obviously provide some forum, but it’s failed many 
of the people who have either tried to go through the system and were 
encouraged not to escalate, or who were deterred from going into the 
system at all.

We believe that this type of arbitration system would allow for a 
different kind of mechanism for people to make a claim about gender 
discrimination or sexual harassment. From the perspective of the 
government-department student workers, this has motivated a lot of the 
pressure. There’s a deep lack of confidence and trust.

Baker: Whatever the inadequacies of the existing Title IX system may be 
— and there are many inadequacies — there isn’t even a comparably 
inadequate system to deal with cases of racial discrimination, 
discrimination on the basis of national origin, and a variety of other 
categories of discrimination, which occur with some regularity on 
campus. This is a problem that’s pervasive, and, currently, the way that 
it’s supposed to be dealt with (through various kinds of ad hoc and 
informal mechanisms), exacerbates the power differentials that exist 
between faculty and students, exacerbates the uncertainties surrounding 
the position of graduate students, who are simultaneously doing work for 
their advisers on a very short-term, semester-by-semester, week-by-week 
basis, but who are also dependent on advisers and other faculty members 
on a much longer time scale for their career advancement and their 
status within the profession.

There’s a profound irony with regard to that ambiguity in the 
faculty-student relationship. Harvard, throughout the negotiations, and 
especially during our strike, has been trying to have it both ways here: 
On the one hand, during the strike, Harvard has attempted to impose 
novel obligations of surveillance and discipline on faculty, arguing 
that faculty are management and have distinctive management obligations 
and, therefore, are obliged to report on students who are striking, to 
keep track of students’ striking behavior, and ultimately to help the 
administration dock pay of students who may be striking. But at the same 
time, when students are attempting to argue for these contract 
provisions that would help provide a safeguard against abusive behavior 
from faculty supervisors, the university wants to argue that the 
faculty-student relationship is primarily one of collegiality, that it 
is a kind of level playing field where pervasive power differentials are 
exaggerated by student activists, and that retaining a purely informal 
process of resolution is necessary to preserve the intellectual 
relationship between students and faculty.

We’re seeing the pervasive ambiguity in the relationship between faculty 
and students be exploited by Harvard right now, in real time. And that’s 
why we think that a contract that precisely delineates what these 
obligations may be, and that provides mechanisms of recourse for 
students who are victimized by professors in a position of much greater 
power than them, is so significant for student workers on campus.

Weld: The issue of faculty being management is an interesting one, and 
kind of a funny exception in U.S. labor law. The Yeshiva decision from 
1980 ruled that faculty at private institutions do count as management, 
whereas their counterparts at public institutions do not (and therefore 
may, for example, organize in their own unions).

The administration has behaved in this strike based on the assumption 
that faculty will act as management, and that they will simply do the 
things that they are told by the university. Most relevant to this 
discussion is the question of gathering information on which graduate 
teachers are participating in the strike and which ones are not.

I think that was a real wake-up call for a number of faculty. There is a 
real sense of shock among my colleagues at the ease with which the 
administration is assuming that we are going to do their dirty work. For 
the record, there are some departments that have made the decision not 
to comply with these informational requests from the administration. 
It’s bad pedagogy and bad advising, too, for us to assume the authority 
of policing the labor activities of graduate teachers. There’s more 
discontent among the faculty than you think.

Mazumder: The chair [of the government department] sent out emails to 
current Teaching Fellows, asking them about their strike participation. 
If they didn’t email back, then they would be assumed to be 
participating in the strike.

Our position in organizing against this in real time is that faculty are 
not necessarily management. And, moreover, this is not necessarily a 
task that a department chair should be having to deal with. Monitoring 
students’ hours and wages is not something that department chairs have 
traditionally done, nor should they be doing. We view the decision to 
outsource this type of activity as intimidation.

Baker: One thing that’s been really striking (no pun intended) and 
energizing has been the solidarity displayed with us from other local 
and campus unions. The drivers and Teamsters, Local 25, which represents 
a lot of the UPS drivers and other drivers who make deliveries to 
Harvard, have respected our picket lines. And that has led to a lot of 
disruption. As well as unionized workers who do garbage collection on 
campus. As well as, of course, the workers in the Harvard Union of 
Clerical and Technical Workers and the Harvard dining workers, Local 26. 
They have been extremely supportive, speaking at our picket lines, 
categorically making clear their refusal to substitute for the work 
that’s being withdrawn by striking students. That has really been 
powerful — to show students, who may not be used to thinking of 
themselves as part of a broader labor movement, that there are people on 
this campus, in this city, in this country, around the world who have 
their backs, who will show up to respect our picket lines, who are 
committing to help us win this thing, because they know that the 
benefits that we win here will be victories for the broader labor movement.

Weld: Periodically, faculty members will say, with reference, for 
instance, to the wage increases that the union is asking for, “That 
would make the grad students’ salaries increase faster than ours! 
Hahaha.” And, of course, it would, because then one of the major bodies 
of unorganized folks on campus would be faculty, who have no mechanism 
by which to ask for regular wage increases.

So you do get a kind of funny situation where graduate teachers are 
standing up and asserting themselves as a group of workers in a way that 
the faculty never have. There are all kinds of funny ironies nested in 
there. But, to agree with Shom, of course, there’s no reason why faculty 
need to comply with instructions from the university administration 
about gathering information on student participation. I’m pretty sure 
that all of those kinds of directives are just boilerplate purchased by 
the university from whatever expensive labor-busting law firm it has 
contracted to help it manage this strike.

There is a kind of umbrella of legal organizations and lawyers that 
helps private universities bust their grad unions. And they work with 
each other across institutions, and they share information, and they 
share tactics, and language, and that kind of thing. Of course, Harvard 
doesn’t like to think of itself as being like Target, but in this 
respect, it is.

What does this strike tell us about the broader political economy of 
higher education today?

Baker: It’s easy to tell the declensionist story where this conflict 
shows how corrupted higher education has gotten. And now we have 
students fighting back. Certainly there have been all sorts of negative 
structural changes implemented across the landscape of American higher 
ed in the last couple of decades.

But I am a U.S. intellectual historian. I spend a lot of time reading 
the letters and diaries of people who taught in American universities in 
the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Something like this would have 
been inconceivable then, because at the time, the way that American 
higher education was formalized was as a profoundly feudal and intensely 
circumscribed apprentice system, where people from a very particular 
kind of social background were admitted into the hallowed territory of 
postgraduate education. They did their time and understood that if they 
went along with the process, they would get what was coming to them.

What we’re seeing now is the heightening or the emergence of new 
contradictions as there have been attempts to expand the ranks of the 
professoriate to include people who have not been able to be rest 
assured that if they submitted to discipline now, they would rise to the 
top of the hierarchy in due time.

That sort of diversification — or expansion, or however you want to 
characterize it — has not just been resisted from more revanchist or 
reactionary elements in the academy; it has also produced a fundamental 
tension at the heart of this extremely hierarchical apprenticeship 
model. To me, to the extent that [this strike] speaks to the 
contemporary landscape of higher education, it shows that there are 
people who are now in the academy who aren’t in a position to just wait 
and see. They’re certainly not guaranteed any sort of cushy position. 
They’re coming in with novel levels of debt from their undergrad 
education; they’re subjected not just to ordinary kinds of labor 
exploitation in the academy, but to forms of discrimination and 
disparagement and victimization on the basis of race or gender, sexual 
orientation, national origin. And the calculation has changed for a lot 
of students. All of a sudden, there isn’t this traditional sequence that 
unfolds before you and you just have to climb up the ladder. It’s a lot 
harder to see whether there is a ladder, to believe that that ladder was 
made for you and for people like you. So people are more willing to 
demand that their graduate education be one of dignity and respect, free 
from exploitation and victimization, because there’s no guarantee that 
this is all just part of the game.

Weld: I think 2008 and the financial crisis was a huge watershed in this 

Old-timers — my own advisers — would have said, “Oh, well, it wasn’t 
that easy for us to get jobs either back in the late 1970s and early 
1980s.” But I think the statistics are very, very clear. If you look at 
my discipline, history, the American Historical Association maintains 
numbers of Ph.D.s produced in U.S. universities per year, and the number 
of job postings for historians per year. There is a cliff that the 
discipline falls off after the financial crisis that it’s never been 
able to scale again.

2008 is 11 years ago now. And I do think there has been a learning 
curve. But not as quick or not as sharp a learning curve as we might 
like. Very eminent senior faculty who’ve been at an institution for 
several decades suddenly, now, are starting to see with their own eyes 
that even their students aren’t getting jobs, even in top-ranked, very 
prestigious programs.

As a result of changes to academic-labor relations over the past 40 
years, faculty have become increasingly itinerant, and there is higher 
turnover. You cannot be as assured that the faculty whom you may be 
working with at one point are going to be there the following year. How 
does this set the table for organizers on campuses today?

Baker: It is uniquely challenging to create in workplaces like ours a 
culture of organizing. This is, in part, because of the extent to which 
the career path of a lot of people who enter into the workplace is 
extremely individualized. People very much perceive themselves to be on 
an individualized trajectory that, for a particular moment, may 
intersect with the career trajectory of others, that may intersect with 
the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit, but there are challenges that people face 
in terms of really conceptualizing themselves as members of an enduring 
and substantial collective.

One example that I have been thinking about this week is that I 
anticipate the next semester will be my last semester teaching and, 
therefore, as a member of the bargaining unit. So the contract that I am 
striking for now may actually not benefit me personally as much as it 
will the first- and second-year students in my department who do not 
actually have to teach right now, but who will benefit once they are 
teaching in another year or two. And yet, it’s been a lot harder to get 
first- and second-year students out demonstrating with us. And I think 
that that’s, in part, because you’re encouraged in academia to have a 
very week-by-week, semester-by-semester view of yourself and your 
position. And this isn’t just a cultural thing. There are real pressures 
to constantly be looking at the next step you’re going to take in order 
to get out of the position that you are in right now and into a position 
that is more stable or more prestigious or whatever.

So there’s that sense of constant and individualized movement that makes 
it harder for a real culture of organizing to congeal. I was just 
talking with a Teamster, Local 25 member this week, and he was 
astonished that there were so many people in our unit who were not 
joining the strike. And he said that, in his union, that was completely 
inconceivable. But there are sympathetic people who are out of town and 
unable to join the picket. And there are people who don’t even 
necessarily understand what it might mean for them to strike in their 
position right now. But what we’ve always tried to do is to build up 
that culture of organizing.

Even if, as is the case in most humanities and soft-social-science 
departments, you are not a member of the bargaining unit until your 
second or third year on campus, the day that you show up, you’re hearing 
about our union, you’re forming relationships with union organizers. 
You’re learning about the issues that student workers face. You’re 
hearing stories from your friends. People are open and honest about the 
challenges, and that collective bargaining and collective action is seen 
as an important solution for these problems. These problems aren’t just 
the kinds of things that you have to go through as a sort of rite of 
passage in graduate school. These are problems that are changeable, that 
are political and that are collective, that it’s not just you who’s in 
this boat. And that is often a realization that takes some time to dawn 
on a lot of graduate students. But it is a realization that we try to 
hurry along as much as possible through our organizing, just department 
by department, community by community.

Weld: Andrew Ross and others have written about the mental-labor problem 
— the idea that, if you’re doing something that’s a kind of intellectual 
and creative vocation, then you’re not a “real worker.” And that’s the 
entry-level hurdle for organizing grad students, whatever kind of 
institution you’re at.

The challenge on the faculty end of things is to think about how we can 
create the most supportive and nurturing environment for graduate 
students to do their work. That’s not an environment we’re going to be 
able to build without a much more robust sense of ourselves as a 
collective, working together to try to hash out some basic ethical 
principles for how to best be there for our students.

Baker: At the end of the day, it all boils down to a basic irony: 
Harvard and many other university administrations are trying to have 
their cake and eat it, too. They want to transform the university into a 
sort of corporation — in many ways, much more like a conventional 
business workplace — but they do not want the consequence of that, which 
is ordinary worker mobilization of the kind that we see in workplaces 
all across the country.

Maximilian Alvarez is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.

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