A textbook lesson in solidarity at Harvard

September 28, 2018

Last April, graduate student workers at Harvard University voted to form a union by a vote of 1,931 to 1,523. Harvard has since agreed to negotiate with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW (HGSU-UAW), making it the first Ivy League university to recognize a graduate student worker union.

Yueran Zhang is a former Harvard graduate student worker and member of the International Socialist Organization who was a leader in the HGSU-UAW campaign. He spoke about the union drive and lessons for other labor struggles on and off campus with Ryan Roche, a worker at Harvard and local union rep in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW-AFSCME 3650).

WHAT LED you to become so heavily involved in the grad student union campaign at Harvard?

I WAS initially drawn to the union campaign because of my political conviction that organizing workers for power is always important. My politics got me started, but my heavy involvement in the campaign was a gradual process.

I still remember my first campus-wide Organizing Committee meeting, facing a whole roomful of people I didn’t know, and completely unsure of what my place would be in this campaign.

Harvard graduate workers demand union recognition
Harvard graduate workers demand union recognition (Harvard Graduate Students Union - UAW | Facebook)

But over time, some of my fellow organizers reached out to me, not to delegate tasks but to encourage me to think proactively about how I could best contribute to organizing based on my experiences and skills. Instead of being just a cog in the wheel, it was clear that I should develop my own organizing projects.

Once I felt like an organic part of the campaign, it was easy to see where I, as an international student from China, could best help. Organizing international students, especially Chinese-speaking international students, was a crucial part of the campaign, and something I was uniquely qualified to lead.

On the one hand, I felt a sense of immense responsibility. On the other, I felt fully trusted and supported by my fellow organizers. I wasn’t born an organizer; the community and trust among fellow organizers made me one.

THERE WAS a unionization vote in 2016. What were the results of that election, and what happened afterwards?

The first unionization vote happened in late November in 2016, roughly three months after the National Labor Relations Board’s Columbia decision that ruled graduate student workers at private universities are statutory employees covered by the NLRA, and thus have the right to form a union.

Leading up to that election, the Harvard administration failed to provide an accurate list of all student workers eligible to vote, and there was a lot of confusion about eligibility. The final tally was 1,396 to 1,526, narrowly in favor of “no.”

But because Harvard left more than 500 eligible student workers off the voter list, most of whom remained unaware of their eligibility, we appealed to the NLRB for a second election and won.

HOW DID the strategy of this campaign change between the first vote and the second vote?

I WASN’T involved in the campaign leading up to the first vote, but from what others told me, it seems that before the first election, the campaign largely appealed to abstract ideological principles like “power” and “democracy.” The messaging didn’t focus on concrete issues and information. With an underdeveloped network of organizers, there wasn’t as much targeted engagement with workers.

For the second election, we tried very hard to strategize around the model of issue-based deep organizing. With new layers of organizers built in almost every department and school and among marginalized student populations, we were often able to develop plans to engage each worker individually, hearing their concerns and addressing their questions as candidly as possible.

We leveraged preexisting personal relationships to engage workers and built new relationships to develop trust. And in all sorts of communications with workers, ranging from op-eds to organizing conversations, we made sure to talk about concrete, specific issues.

Other than “bread and butter” issues such as wages and health care, two issues we often highlighted were insufficient protections against sexual violence and the precarity faced by international students.

We were also better prepared for attacks from the administration. Shortly before the first election, the university launched a vehement anti-union blast that caught organizers off guard. Before the second election, we anticipated and planned for those attacks, so when the anti-union campaign reappeared we were ready to fight back.

YOU MENTIONED the crucial role that international student workers played in this campaign. Can you talk about that more specifically?

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS should be central to any organizing drive in higher education. First of all, we form a large proportion of graduate students at many universities. At Harvard, one in every three students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is an international student.

Moreover, because of the employment restrictions associated with student visas, xenophobic federal policies targeted at immigrants, the lack of access to many funding opportunities that are citizen-only, and the many language and cultural barriers, international students face particularly precarious situations and need our union as a channel to collectively fight for rights and protections even more than domestic students.

However, international students tend to be particularly hard to organize. Because we face more precarity, many international students are more likely to feel dependent upon the university and less likely to see and believe in our own collective power.

Almost all of us have experiences of feeling alienated from American institutions, and thus tend to be suspicious of a union campaign led mostly by American students. It’s not intuitive that we should be part of it.

In addition, union campaigns in higher education usually use departments as basic units for organizing. However, in many departments international students occupy a marginalized and isolated position, even though they build connections and communities among themselves across departments. Therefore, the department-based model of organizing is not likely to reach many international students.

We as organizers cannot expect workers to develop a sense of solidarity on their own. We need to embed ourselves among the workers and show everyone we’re all in this together. This is even more true for organizing international students.

At Harvard, we followed three strategic principles in our organizing.

First, we built a solid infrastructure to effectively spread information. We made and distributed flyers and leaflets in Chinese, wrote and published FAQs in Chinese, and hosted info sessions in Chinese. The idea was that we should not appear as if we were asking international students to “come to us for information.” Instead, we proactively delivered information to international students.

Secondly, we built a team of organizers, who were themselves international students, to do deep and visible organizing within communities of international students. Winning international students’ support meant that we had to show that our union was not an American institution but a place where all student workers came together. The only way to show that was to have international student organizers show by example.

Thirdly, we spent lots of time talking about how our union could address concrete issues that were specifically relevant to international students’ lives. This was not only something we talked about when talking to international students, but a prominent theme of our campaign overall.

For example, a few weeks before the second election, our campaign published an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson, detailing the precarity that international students face and how a union would help. The message was loud and clear: our union took international students, and their unique concerns, very seriously.

All of these efforts paid off. During the election this April, Crimson reporters conducted an exit poll and told us they were surprised by the number of respondents who said they voted “yes” specifically because they wanted more rights as international students. Compared to the campaign leading up to the first election, our success at organizing international students was a big part of the reason why we won this April.

WHAT WERE some of your experiences talking to graduate student workers on campus about the need to unionize? Were there any arguments or talking points that you found helpful?

WHAT I learned from all the organizing conversations I had with workers is that organizing is not about particular arguments or talking points, but about building trust.

I’ve heard all sorts of concerns and arguments against unionization, but almost all of them fundamentally came down to a lack of trust in the collective power that we as workers will have when coming together in a union.

Sometimes, it manifested as a perception of our union as a third party invading from outside, not something we the workers form on our own. Or a fear that our union wouldn’t have genuine democracy and members would be represented by a bunch of conspiratorial unionists. Or an imagery of students from different departments all having their particularistic interests that cannot be addressed collectively. Or a deep suspicion towards the UAW, with which our local union campaign was affiliated.

As organizers, we realized that all arguments and talking points are useful only insofar as they are used as part of a broader project of building trust. When having an organizing conversation with a worker, I always saw my task as three steps.

First, how to make this worker trust that I was organizing only because I had faith in our collective power as workers? Second, how to make this worker see that hundreds of their co-workers just like me were building this power across the campus? Third, how to convince this worker that they should be part of this together with me and that we have each other’s back?

I talked to many student workers who came to support unionization not because they trusted this abstract notion of “a union,” but because they came to trust me personally. Building trust is a deeply interpersonal and relational process, and the specific issues and arguments varied from conversation to conversation.

At the end of the day, this is what it really takes to concretely build working-class consciousness. We forge interpersonal relationships of trust that enable workers to see themselves as part of a larger community, the community of all workers. This sense of community then becomes a realization that when we come together we have immense power.

In a workplace which is so good at dividing and isolating us, where elitist individualism rules the day, this is the way we build solidarity.

NOW THAT workers voted to unionize, what is the next step?

AFTER OUR union was certified, the Harvard administration said they would bargain with us “in good faith.” In early May, student workers elected our union’s bargaining committee. Over the summer, we distributed bargaining surveys, which thousands of student workers filled out. Now workers are voting on the bargaining goals. Once this is done, the actual bargaining sessions with the university can begin.

One thing to note is that some organizers who were heavily involved in the campaign in the spring are less involved now, either because they take a leave to do fieldwork, or because they reach that point in their academic program where they actually have to focus on their research, or because they graduated or left the university.

Unions or union campaigns in higher education often see large turnover in their organizers’ ranks, and that’s why it is always extremely important to identify and develop new layers of leadership.

As I mentioned, I was developed into an organizer by my fellow organizers, and one thing I’m extremely proud of is that I also helped develop other students into leaders. So even though I’m no longer at Harvard, I’m confident that everything I helped build there will be carried on.

DID WORKING on this campaign clarify or change any of your politics? What lessons did you learn from this struggle?

AS A socialist, I have always believed in the power of workers. But the experience of organizing for this campaign made me see more clearly that the power of workers rests on collective solidarity.

Essentially, the battle between union organizers and anti-union forces is one between the image of a collective and the image of an individual.

All the anti-union tactics deployed — third-partying our union, pitting student workers in different departments against each other, appealing to self-interested utility-maximizing calculations of dues and pay raises, insinuating that workers could be forced on strike against their will, etc. — were meant to sow division so we saw ourselves only as atomized individuals.

Fighting these tactics means fighting the common individualizing tendency underlying them, which in turn means building a perspective that workers exist first and foremost as a collective, not as lone individuals. That’s why forging relationships, trust and community is so important for these struggles.

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