Why we’re ready to strike

Harvard has learned nothing about how to handle harassment

AFTER A YEAR of negotiating with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers, Harvard administrators propose to leave all the policies in place that enable powerful abusers. By setting a strike deadline for December 3, student workers are refusing to accept the status quo.

In early 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story that Jorge Dominguez, professor in the Government Department, had serially harassed students, staff, and faculty over three decades, forcing many women to leave the university and academia altogether. While the news shook the campus for months, students have known for a long time that Harvard’s internal processes were not adequately protecting our community.

Motivated by the conditions that enable abusers like Dominguez, in addition to concerns about healthcare access and economic security, Harvard graduate and undergraduate student workers started organizing to form a union. We won our union election in the spring of 2018, and since then, one of our highest priorities has been to secure access to a neutral, third-party grievance procedure for student workers who are facing discrimination or harassment.

The need for a neutral, third-party process could not be clearer. The administration has routinely failed to protect students in the past, and the 2019 Association of American Universities survey shows that the rate of harassment remains unchanged after four years, even though the administration apparently invested millions of dollars on Title IX improvements. A union grievance procedure has functioned for years as an effective safeguard for student workers at other universities such as New York University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of California system. Harvard has already granted these protections for other unionized workers on campus. The administration has yet to provide a credible reason why student workers should be denied an optional, voluntary route to address workplace discrimination and harassment complaints.

The administration’s efforts to prevent access to a union grievance procedure extend beyond sexual harassment: they also seek to block such protections against essentially any kind of abuse from powerful faculty. Some of the most straightforward ways that supervisors can abuse students who depend on them are demanding excessive work, or withholding advice or academic approval as retaliation, along with various other forms of harassment or discrimination. For each of these potential offenses, the Harvard administration has shown that they are not committed to holding abusive supervisors accountable.

How does the Harvard administration propose dealing with the power imbalances that lead to abuse? Internal procedures, the administration argues, are adequate for protecting student workers. This is hardly comforting to the thousands of students who do not trust the university to handle complaints of harassment and discrimination. One needs only to look at the case of Jorge Dominguez to see how Harvard’s internal policies have failed our community. Moreover, Harvard currently does not even have an established avenue for processing complaints of racial discrimination.

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In addition to guaranteeing protections against harassment and discrimination, a contract that fosters a more equitable campus will have to address the material needs of student workers. Yet the administration is not willing to do that, either. With a $40 billion endowment, Harvard administrators still cannot find it in their budget to provide student workers paid parental leave or offer year-round mental healthcare.

After a year of negotiations, student workers at Harvard overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in order to secure fair pay, comprehensive and affordable healthcare, and protections from discrimination and harassment. Our 90.4 percent strike vote sends a clear message to the university administration — that we will do what it takes to win a contract that protects our rights to work and study without fear of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or abuse. Over 2,400 student workers have delivered a mandate. And if the Harvard administrators continue to stand by their grossly inadequate policies, student workers have only one choice—to go on strike.