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Harvard Grad Students Strike

At the richest university in the United States, employees are making minimum wage and struggling

Brian Young's picture
Dec 04, 2019

After a year of failed negotiations, graduate students at Harvard University have had enough and are on strike. On Tuesday, thousands of grad student workers were seen sloshing through a snow storm and slush in the famed Harvard Yard demanding higher pay.

The strike, which is the first Ivy League grad student strike in 46 years, involves 4,000 student employees who work as teaching assistants, teaching fellows, tutors, and researchers. The union, which formed in 2018, is a part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). This would be their first contract.

While progress has been made on some parts of the contract the main sticking points are around fair pay, affordable healthcare, and protection from academic harassment and discrimination. In terms of pay, the union says Harvard has failed to keep up with the rising costs associated with living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to the union, some university workers are making as little as $12 an hour, which is the Massachusetts minimum wage. While the university is proposing raises to $15 an hour, the union wants the lowest wages to be at $25 an hour. This would put the graduate students in line with other Harvard employees. According to Harvard Crimson, employees like security guards and custodians who are represented by SEIU 32BJ are paid between $23.39 and $25.70 an hour. The union also notes that Harvard is sitting on a multi-billion dollar endowment and claimed to have increased their net assets in 2019 by $2.3 billion. They now have total net assets of $49.3 Billion, but many graduate students are being paid minimum wage and can’t afford to live in the local area or pay for health insurance.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point of the negotiations revolve around employee protections. The union wants a provision in the contract that provides an impartial third-party arbitrator for harassment and discrimination complaints. They allege that the university has been sweeping these complaints under the rug for to long. Harvard has recently had some high-profile sexual harassment complaints and some employees have reported threats from administration officials when they reported harassment.

This strike is just the latest fight for workers at Harvard. In 2016 dining hall employees went on strike for nearly a month over poverty wages. The strike ended after the employees gained a contract that guaranteed a $35,000 a year minimum wage for the 700 workers. This was estimated to be about a $4,000 raise for most of the workers.

The grad students have vowed to stay on strike until the University comes to an agreement. With the strike happening on the last day of classes for the fall semester, it is possible that the strike could extend into the New Year.

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