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Pulse of Longwood takes you inside one of the nation’s largest hubs of hospitals and biomedical research.

They run experiments at prestigious hospitals and universities, teach classes, and grade problem sets. Should graduate students have the right to form a union?

As a federal panel weighs that question, students at Harvard and other elite universities are readying troops for potential union elections — while those institutions, arguing that students are not employees, are trying to block the way.


All eyes are turned toward the National Labor Relations Board, which is revisiting a Bush-era decision that found that private universities are not required to recognize graduate student unions.

There’s “a good chance” the board, which is now stacked with Obama appointees, will reverse that 2004 decision, said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University.

Such a reversal would open the door for doctoral students at private universities to band together to negotiate issues like pay, health benefits, workload, and class size.


The decision could affect some 4,000 doctoral students at Harvard, including about 1,000 who are based in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. They crunch data and measure mice in labs at Harvard and nearby hospitals, teach classes on immunology and biostatistics, and conduct research at the public health school.

Chamith Fonseka, a graduate student who studies genetics, said he became active in the union after noticing the difference in working conditions between lab techs and graduate student research assistants, who often work side by side.

When he worked as a lab tech at Harvard, he was part of a union. The work rules for vacation time, sick time, and extended leave were “all spelled out,” he said. Graduate students, meanwhile, don’t have such rules. Depending on their supervisor, he said, they can face a lot of pressure to be the first to show up at the lab and the last to leave.

“People who end up in the lab until midnight are graduate students,” he said.

As they await the NLRB decision, graduate students are running union drives at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Chicago, as well as at Columbia and The New School in New York, the two schools involved in the latest appeal before the NLRB. Union efforts have surged since graduate students scored a major victory in 2013, when New York University became the only private university to voluntarily recognize its graduate student union.

Universities are sounding an alarm. In an amicus brief filed in February, Harvard, six other Ivy League schools, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology urged the NLRB not to give graduate students collective bargaining rights, in part because they claim it could destroy the mentor-student relationship.

PhD candidates “are students first,” not workers first, said Allen Aloise, dean for administration and finance at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It would be a mistake to change that relationship.”

The brief paints a hypothetical nightmare in which graduate students file union grievances when asked to grade essays instead of multiple-choice exams, tying up the university in years-long disputes. And, citing examples in the public sector, the universities caution that they could face disruptive grievances over when they should waive tuition for certain students, or how many credits a student needs to become a teaching assistant.

Supporters of graduate student unions point to a 2013 study that found unionization at public universities did not hurt academic freedom or student-teacher relationships.

Meanwhile, student organizers at Harvard have teamed up with the United Automobile Workers, which these days represents workers mostly from outside of the auto industry, including over 30,000 graduate students at NYU and at public universities such as the University of Massachusetts and UConn. (Students at public universities already have the right to unionize because they are governed by state labor law, while private universities are governed by federal labor law.)

Last fall, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW began collecting union authorization cards from eligible students — those who have positions as research assistants or teaching fellows, not the newly arrived students who are just taking classes.

The Harvard union organizers say they have collected cards from over half of eligible students, though they declined to give a number. This semester, they have become more visible, soliciting political support from outside Harvard and hosting union-sponsored forums about science funding and immigration law.

Student organizer Avery Davis, a PhD candidate who studies genetics, said bringing Harvard to the bargaining table would force the institution to open its accounting books and show what students are paid across disciplines.

Fonseka said when he switched from lab tech to graduate student, he took a pay cut, got priced out of Cambridge, and is now living with four roommates in Somerville.

PhD students in science typically make a few thousand dollars more than the $32,160 annual stipend that’s standard for most Harvard PhD programs, according to Aloise, the Harvard dean.

But Fonseka said a student’s stipend may fluctuate based on grants. He said the union would like to be able to negotiate one “livable” minimum stipend, as well as clearly defined rules around sick and vacation days.

In their brief, Harvard and the other universities argue that research assistants like Fonseka should not be considered employees because their research leads to a dissertation. Most doctoral students don’t have to pay tuition; doing research and teaching is part of an exchange by which they get their degree.

Graduate students say their research isn’t just for their own education — they often contribute research to team projects or ones unrelated to their theses, and their data help professors nab grants.

“The school would cease to function without our labor,” said Leigh Senderowicz, a doctoral candidate in global health at Harvard’s public health school.

Senderowicz said she feels “shafted” by Harvard: Unlike all of the PhD students at the university, she doesn’t get a stipend to attend school, and she has to pay for her own health care plan. That’s because she’s one of 263 doctor of science students, who don’t get the same benefits as PhD candidates.

The school plans to convert those degree programs into a new PhD and offer new enrollees stipends and health benefits, but that change won’t help current students like Senderowicz.

She said she has cobbled together two teaching jobs, a research position, and external consulting gigs to pay her way through school — adding 40 hours per week of work unrelated to her thesis on reproductive health.

“We are by far the most marginalized students in the university,” Senderowicz said. “We’re in this horrible position where we’re forced to make decisions between trying to move forward in our program, and trying to meet our basic needs.”

Senderowicz said she hopes the union will achieve more equality across Harvard.

Jae Hyeon Lee, however, is skeptical. After working as a union organizer around Longwood, the third-year physics PhD candidate grew disillusioned and became a vocal critic. He said the union is too focused on economic issues and one-size-fits-all solutions across disciplines.

He said having poor relationships with advisors is the root cause of graduate student discontent, and unionization is not the best route to address that problem. Lee said he has been put off by the rhetoric and tactics of the UAW, which he sees as an outside entity trying to create a revenue stream.

Lee, who grew up in South Korea, said he makes a fair wage of $2,700 a month and believes university officials genuinely want to help students. The university recently increased the PhD students’ standard stipend, doubled the amount of parental leave, and introduced a subsidized transit pass.

If the NLRB decision falls students’ way, they can petition the NLRB to hold a union election. If the majority of voting students approve, Harvard would have to recognize the collective bargaining unit.

Lee said he has heard from about 20 students who oppose the union, but they haven’t organized an opposition campaign yet.

“We’re just waiting for the decision from the NLRB to come out,” he said. “If there’s an election, that’s the time when we’ll more vigorously put up a fight.”