Leaked Documents Show How Harvard Administration Wants To Defeat Grad Student Union

Corey Robin

Harvard Yard (Marc Buehler / Flickr)

Harvard’s grad stu­dents have launched a union cam­paign, and Harvard’s admin­is­tra­tion has launched its response. Inter­nal doc­u­ments from the admin­is­tra­tion to the fac­ul­ty, which were leaked to me, reveal some fas­ci­nat­ing devel­op­ments in these increas­ing­ly com­mon anti-union dri­ves of elite Ivy League universities.

First, uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions have grown high­ly sen­si­tized to any per­cep­tion that they or their fac­ul­ty are using intim­i­da­tion and coer­cion to bust unions of aca­d­e­m­ic work­ers. So sen­si­tized that they’ve draft­ed a set of four rules, replete with a handy acronym, just in case the fac­ul­ty can’t remem­ber to keep things cool.

The basic rule is: No TIPS”

No Threats

No Inter­ro­ga­tion

No Promis­es

No Surveil­lance

You have to appre­ci­ate the hilar­i­ty. Like most elite fac­ul­ty, Harvard’s pro­fes­sor prob­a­bly oppose a union of grad­u­ate stu­dents because they think it will sul­ly the intel­lec­tu­al virtues of America’s most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty. Yet here they are being instruct­ed by that most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty to oppose that union with the help of slo­gans and acronyms.

And believe or not: that’s the good news. The use of fear and favor can be fatal to a union dri­ve, and it’s good that at least some por­tion of the fac­ul­ty are being told not to go there. (Whether that mes­sage sticks once the dri­ve real­ly gets going is anoth­er mat­ter.) What’s more, it shows how con­scious Harvard’s admin­is­tra­tors — real­ly, lawyers (and prob­a­bly not even in-house lawyers; there are firms that spe­cial­ize in this stuff) — are that the law and the courts may not be on their side on this issue.

Sec­ond, and even more inter­est­ing , is how, hav­ing explained to the world’s lead­ing lumi­nar­ies of light and rea­son that they should not ter­ror­ize the work­ers and stu­dents with whom they work (and don’t assume these lumi­nar­ies don’t need that explained to them), the admin­is­tra­tion pro­ceeds to instruct the fac­ul­ty in what they should do.

Do Share the University’s Record on Stipends and Ben­e­fits, where known. Pro­vide infor­ma­tion to stu­dents about the array of ben­e­fits that they present­ly receive, includ­ing the University’s record of steady improve­ment over time — with­out a union.

Do Explain the Dis­ad­van­tages of Union Mem­ber­ship. There are eco­nom­ic costs to join­ing a union, includ­ing the like­li­hood that they will be required to pay annu­al dues. There are also non-eco­nom­ic costs, includ­ing the intru­sion of a third par­ty into an aca­d­e­m­ic rela­tion­ship, adding a new polit­i­cal enti­ty (the UAW) with its own agen­da to exist­ing relations.

Do Explain the Col­lec­tive Bar­gain­ing Process. The process of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing requires par­ties to meet at rea­son­able times and places to dis­cuss wages, hours, and work­ing con­di­tions. How­ev­er, the law does not dic­tate what must go into a con­tract. Thus, the union can­not guar­an­tee any spe­cif­ic out­come, such as an improve­ment in stipend or oth­er ben­e­fits, as these mat­ters would become sub­ject to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. If there is a rec­og­nized union of grad­u­ate stu­dents, the Uni­ver­si­ty would bar­gain in good faith, but the Uni­ver­si­ty can­not be forced to accept union demands. The Uni­ver­si­ty would also be allowed to pro­pose its own changes to the sta­tus quo in nego­ti­a­tions. You can also men­tion that nego­ti­a­tions for a first con­tract usu­al­ly take a year or longer dur­ing which time there could not be any uni­lat­er­al changes to the sta­tus quo, includ­ing changes in compensation.

Do Explain the Elec­tion Process. In order for a union to file a peti­tion for an elec­tion with the NLRB, it must obtain autho­riza­tion cards from at least 30 per­cent of the employ­ees in an appro­pri­ate unit. Stu­dents have the right to decide whether or not to sign a union autho­riza­tion card, and even if they do sign a card and an elec­tion is lat­er held, they don’t have to vote in favor of the union. If there is an elec­tion, it would be con­duct­ed by the NLRB and would be a secret bal­lot elec­tion. The elec­tion is decid­ed by a major­i­ty of votes cast, just like a polit­i­cal elec­tion. Also, because the major­i­ty of first and sec­ond year stu­dents do not teach or serve as research assis­tants, they may not be con­sid­ered eli­gi­ble mem­bers of a grad­u­ate stu­dent union.

Do Cor­rect Inac­cu­rate or Mis­lead­ing Union State­ments and Cam­paign Mate­ri­als. Inform stu­dents of inac­cu­ra­cies and pro­vide the cor­rect infor­ma­tion, if known. Remind stu­dents that the union may make promis­es, but it can­not guar­an­tee any­thing. • Do Pro­vide Infor­ma­tion about the Union’s Record. Inform stu­dents about the union’s local, region­al, and nation­al track record rep­re­sent­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents, if you are aware of it.

What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about this to-do list is just how much, with­out real­iz­ing it, Harvard’s admin­is­tra­tion has con­ced­ed the union’s case. In two ways: By hav­ing the fac­ul­ty talk to grad work­ers about issues like pay and ben­e­fits, Harvard’s admin­is­tra­tion is con­ced­ing that grad work­ers think like oth­er work­ers. They care about things like pay and benefits.

But Har­vard is also con­ced­ing some­thing about the fac­ul­ty. The premise of grad union dri­ves is that grad stu­dents are work­ers and the admin­is­tra­tion is man­age­ment. Where the fac­ul­ty stand in all that is usu­al­ly a mat­ter of some dis­pute. Most grad unions, for under­stand­able rea­sons, try to reas­sure the fac­ul­ty that they don’t view them as man­age­ment, but as poten­tial allies. Most admin­is­tra­tions, for under­stand­able rea­sons, try to deny that the fac­ul­ty are man­age­ment. Most fac­ul­ty haven’t a clue what they are.

But what is Har­vard doing here but treat­ing the fac­ul­ty as if they are man­age­ment, as if they are the enforcers of the administration’s poli­cies. In the same way that the moguls of Gen­er­al Motors or Hyatt or Ama­zon instruct their front-line man­agers in how to talk to work­ers — often using the same kind of boil­er­plate that Har­vard is using here — so is Har­vard train­ing its man­agers in how to talk to the work­ers there.

Like most schol­ars, Harvard’s fac­ul­ty are used to think­ing of them­selves as inde­pen­dent minds. They’ve engaged in intense, often soli­tary, study of their cho­sen fields for decades. They’ve learned to take noth­ing on faith; they exam­ine the evi­dence and come to their own opinions.

Yet here is Har­vard senior man­age­ment pro­vid­ing mid­dle man­age­ment with a Cliff Notes guide to Amer­i­can labor law, and expect­ing lead­ing schol­ars of Shake­speare, colo­nial Amer­i­ca, urban pover­ty, and the EU to repeat its talk­ing points to their stu­dents. If that doesn’t con­vince the Har­vard fac­ul­ty that, from the university’s per­spec­tive, they real­ly are man­age­ment, no amount of evi­dence and rea­son will.

Corey Robin is a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Brook­lyn Col­lege and the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. He is the author of The Reac­tionary Mind: Con­ser­vatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The His­to­ry of a Polit­i­cal Idea.
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