Harvard University made headlines when it was shamed into returning $9 million in federal stimulus funding from the coronavirus relief package after public backlash rose against elite academic institutions gobbling up federal aid. Although a hugely rich institution like Harvard seems unworthy of a federal bailout, much of its workforce is rife with inequity. After two years of stalled contract talks, the graduate student-workers’ union is still pushing for a contract. The public health emergency engulfing higher education is no excuse for further delay.
Graduate students are continuing to work while struggling with the disruption to their academic careers caused by the pandemic. The union says Harvard is failing to provide the kind of economic security they deserve as a crucial pillar of the institution.
Nishant Kishore, a graduate student in epidemiology at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the current crisis is exactly why a fair contract is needed. Studying how social interventions, such as social distancing, affect the transmission of diseases, his research is more relevant than ever. “And the fact that we’ve been working nonstop on this,” he said, “has really highlighted the fact that a lot of the research, a lot of the knowledge that comes out of an institution like Harvard, is really driven by the graduate students.”
The graduate student-workers’ union—which formed two years ago, despite efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to axe collective-bargaining rights for graduate students—has long pressured the administration for fair pay and improved healthcare benefits, as well as stronger protections against discrimination and harassment. All those demands are more urgent than ever, but the longer the contract talks drag on, the more precarious graduate workers become amid the ongoing public health crisis.
Among the current demands that graduate workers want to see addressed in contract talks are: comprehensive guarantees that both hourly and salaried student workers will be fully paid through the fall semester, unlimited paid sick time for student workers, funding for treatment for COVID-19 for students who test positive, a guarantee that all hourly workers are paid according to their regular schedule and do not lose pay due to the closure of campus facilities, and full reimbursement for the costs that students may incur when asked to leave campus, including travel and storage expenses and rent for those who lose their campus housing. “Harvard needs to provide protections [against] discrimination and harassment,” Kishore said, continuing:
It needs to provide adequate health care in regard to things like mental health, something that has…come out even more as people are potentially working extremely long hours, and oftentimes working those hours in more isolated settings. . . . And we’re now in a situation where we’re kind of just waiting—and then working as much as we can to confront this crisis—while at the same time, taking time to fight to ensure that we have the basic protections needed for [our] work.
The Harvard administration, for its part, has addressed some of the graduate workers’ financial concerns by agreeing to pay teaching and research assistants through the fall semester and offering emergency aid to graduate students, including “lost time funding” (which would grant up to a year of additional support for the completion of their degrees). However, Harvard’s latest update on its financial outlook noted that “the University is facing significant financial challenges which will require difficult decisions,” including cutbacks to discretionary spending and furloughs and layoffs for campus staff and contract workers.
For graduate workers, the financial uncertainty ahead could mean not only disruption to their studies and the loss of on-campus jobs, but also graduating into a dismal academic job market.
Although the university may be facing serious financial losses, Kishore said, graduate students are “in a very precarious financial situation, [and] are facing those issues to a larger extent, [while] also continuing to do the research, [and even] upping the amount of hours they’re working and the intensity that they’re working with, because of this [COVID-19] response effort.”
Since Kishore’s work is helping to advance the public health response to the pandemic, he added:
In times of strife like this, it becomes very, very obvious who’s really producing a lot of the output that universities like Harvard might be generating. And I think it’s important to highlight that that increase of output is largely driven by a population of laborers that don’t have the same protections as you would want all laborers to have. . . . It makes more sense than ever to highlight this disparity right now, and to continue to fight for protections.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.