BOSTON – U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has urged Harvard University to let graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants form collective bargaining units.
Warren and fellow Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Markey sent a letter Monday to Harvard President Drew Faust, saying the students have helped make Harvard an academic world leader. They said giving students the right to collective bargaining will help them continue their work.
“University administrators worldwide look to Harvard as a model for their own universities,” the letter states. “If Harvard welcomes graduate research and teaching assistants who desire to organize for improved workplace policies, a new standard of care may emerge.”
Warren is a former Harvard Law School professor.
A university spokeswoman said Harvard believes the relationship between graduate students and a university is fundamentally about education, not employment — and that their graduate students are “engaged, valued, and supported as a critical part of the learning, teaching, and research” that takes place at Harvard.
“We will continue to encourage an open conversation about graduate student unionization because it could profoundly affect both graduate students and the University’s educational mission,” added Anna Cowenhoven, director of communications for Harvard.
The National Labor Relations Board is considering arguments that graduates assistants are not just students, but also school employees.
In the letter, Warren said that universities already have the option of recognizing collective bargaining units formed by graduate assistants, but that some — like Harvard — have opted to delay that recognition until after the NLRB decision.
Democratic Reps. Michael Capuano and Katherine Clark also signed the letter.
Efforts to unionize graduate students at private universities have been gaining momentum.
A union for teaching assistants is in place at New York University, after the administration gave its blessing in 2013.
Since then, organizing campaigns have gained momentum at other major northeastern universities, including Yale, Harvard and Columbia.
Students and schools are watching the NLRB following a decision to reconsider its decade-old ruling that graduate students at private schools are not entitled to collective bargaining.
Public universities are governed by state labour laws, and tens of thousands of graduate students have been unionized at schools, including the University of California, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut.
At private universities, covered by the National Labor Relations Act, the road to collective bargaining has been blocked by a 2004 ruling in a case involving Brown University in which the NLRB said students cannot unionize.