How Worker Solidarity Propelled a Union Drive at the Country’s Richest University

Earlier this year, a year-long campaign to unionize 6,000 non-tenure-track workers at Harvard finally went public. A model of member-led organizing helped make it possible.

Dusty Christensen

A view of the Harvard Yard gate in Cambridge, MA on September 16, 2021. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

BOSTON — In February, after five years of organizing under the radar, members of the nascent Harvard Academic Workers officially went public with their intent to unionize. 

The road to going public wasn’t always straightaway. In January, as the group of non-tenure-track teaching and research employees moved closer to announcing their drive, union member Kara Fulton and her fellow organizers were having as many feelings of discouragement as they were elation. It felt like we were kind of working on our own,” she said.

But then, later in January, other workers from across the Harvard campus and other Boston-area unions put fuel to their fire at a quickly organized roundtable event that the Harvard Academic Workers’ solidarity committee put together to draw insight and encouragement from other organizers, including Harvard dining-hall workers and Boston University graduate students. 

It wasn’t long after that Harvard Academic Workers went public with its union drive on Feb. 6, asking colleagues to sign union cards in an effort to organize thousands of workers at the country’s richest university. The workers are organizing with the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW, and the union will include all eligible researchers, lecturers and other non-tenure-track workers.

We all sort of left very lifted up,” said Fulton, a postdoctoral fellow in the school’s neurobiology department. We knew people had been there before us and we were just the next in line trying to get a union and getting the benefits that we deserve. It was really powerful… It was definitely a turning point for us.” Organizers are currently still in the process of collecting union cards from workers. 

If successful in winning recognition of their union, the nearly 6,000 Harvard Academic Workers members would total almost the entire number of workers who newly unionized with the UAW in 2022, according to federal data compiled by Miami University political science professor Kevin Reuning. And key to getting them over the final hurdle to going public, according to several organizers, were the solidarity efforts of other workers — both in the UAW and from other unions — who attended that roundtable forum. 

It’s a great example of why people should trust themselves, even if they’ve never organized a union before,” fellow organizer Sara Feldman, who works as a preceptor teaching Yiddish at Harvard, told In These Times earlier this year. That was one of the most important things to come out of that forum… building the confidence of the organizers who attended, [confirming] that they do know what they’re doing and that they have instincts that are right and that they should have agency in driving their campaign and determining the shape of their organization.”

As union density continues its decades-long decline in the United States—dipping from 10.3% of workers in 2021 to 10.1% in 2022, according to federal statistics — organizers across the country are looking for ways to reverse that trend. And in some of the most high-profile organizing drives taking place across the country, there’s evidence that rank-and-file unionists organizing one another has helped make a significant difference.

In April 2022, there was the worker-run, independent Amazon Labor Union that became the first-ever successful effort to organize a warehouse at the online retail behemoth. That victory came amid a deluge of Starbucks workers organizing and winning elections across the country, beginning in December 2021. The model driving the Starbucks surge was based on worker-organizers from stores that had already gone public with their union drives meeting with workers from other shops who had expressed an interest in unionizing. 

Other unions have even begun to formalize this kind of member-led organizing. That’s the case in the NewsGuild, which in 2018 began training rank-and-file workers who had just unionized their own workplaces to become member organizers” who then work to unionize other shops across the country. (Full disclosure: the author has worked as a member organizer with the NewsGuild.) 

Since that program began, the NewsGuild has seen explosive growth in new workplaces organizing. From 2015 through 2017, the union organized a total of 1,025 new workers, according to numbers the union shared with In These Times. From 2018 through 2020, that number jumped to 4,239. A record 2,128 workers unionized with the NewsGuild in 2021, and another 2,012 joined the union the following year. 

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Stephanie Basile, the senior campaign lead for the NewsGuild, said that the union would have never been able to meet that moment of mass organizing without member organizers.

We should use this moment of really exciting activity to just get a bunch of people as trained up as possible so that we have rank-and-file workers who can organize with their coworkers, who can build something from the ground up, who can re-energize an already existing shop, build up a new shop,” Basile said.

Basile noted that the NewsGuild is hardly the first union to empower members to organize their industries. As one example, she said that the Guild’s parent union, the Communication Workers of America, trained brigades” of AT&T workers to go out and talk to nonunion workers about organizing. Teachers unions, the Teamsters and others have developed similar programs. 

In the case of Starbucks organizing, The rank-and-file energy behind the organizing efforts at Starbucks also inspired the Harvard Academic Workers.

When Starbucks workers went on strike for more than two months in Boston last fall, Feldman said that the picket line drew labor activists from across the city to the same place, where they were able to foster connections and share tips from their own organizing work. Some of the workers who attended the Harvard Academic Workers roundtable forum in January of this year were connected with that organizing effort through the Starbucks-strike network, Feldman added.

It facilitated connections between the kind of union members who are interested in solidarity and interested in reaching out to other unions or helping out or answering questions,” Feldman said of the Starbucks strike. Those are often the people who best understand what it takes to have a powerful, democratic, worker-run labor union. So they’re also the people who can be very helpful to talk to.”

The grassroots organizers who showed up to the Harvard Academic Workers’ roundtable brought not only motivation, but also some technical know-how, according to postdoctoral fellow Naveena Karusala. She said that she’s never been part of a union-recognition campaign before, and while you can know in theory what is going to happen, there are still day-to-day organizing questions that union members felt like they couldn’t answer themselves — like how to organize a solidarity rally, for example.

All of these questions were bouncing around and I feel like the roundtable just did so much to kind of show the range of experiences,” Karusala said. It also helped, she added, to make the organizers feel confident in the work we had done so far.”

The Harvard Academic Workers did end up helping organize two solidarity rallies a week after going public. Union organizers from across the city attended, including bus drivers, Starbucks employees and fellow higher-ed workers.

One of the workers who spoke at one of those rallies was Joseph Guidry, a graduate student at Boston University and organizer with the BU Graduate Workers Union, which went public with its own union drive in late 2022 with the Service Employees International Union. The BU grad-student union was also present at the Harvard Academic Workers roundtable event. 

Guidry said that even though the BU Graduate Workers Union and the Harvard Academic Workers are separate and have members who work different jobs in higher education, they’re still engaging in similar efforts.

It’s all the same fight,” he said. So it’s important that we don’t do it alone. We’ll be stronger if we organize together.”

And, as is often the case for workers looking to unionize, the stakes for the Harvard Academic Workers are high. 

Thomas Dichter, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, said that the monthly daycare bill for his two children is higher than his entire monthly paycheck for his half-time teaching position. Speaking to In These Times while on the bus to work after dropping his children off, Dichter noted that the Boston housing market is incredibly expensive.

That’s a lot of motivation for me,” he said. 

Dichter said that Harvard Academic Workers members recognize the vital role they play in keeping the university functioning and want to leverage that role to have a seat at the table instead of just being informed of decisions after administrators have already made them. And they’re making progress, he added, through rank-and-file organizing.

I’ve been involved with this campaign for about four and a half years,” Dichter said. We’ve spent a lot of time having one one-on-one conversation after another between workers. That took a while, but the amount of support and enthusiasm is huge.”

Feldman said that kind of ground-up organizing is important because, while union staff organizers play vital roles in campaigns, at the end of the day only workers can bring the authenticity needed to win.

You know your workplace, you know your colleagues, your coworkers, and you know your capacity for what you can get done,” she said. And that is always going to have to be up to the rank-and-file to assess and determine and plan.” 

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts.

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