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November 15, 2016

Harvard University graduate student Abhinav Reddy encourages his classmates to vote on whether to form a union. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

Graduate and some undergraduate students at Harvard University will vote this week on whether to form the Ivy League’s first graduate student union.

Harvard University will be the first school to vote on a graduate student union following the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in August, which determined that students who are research and teaching assistants at private universities do have the right to unionize.

“We have students who are exploited. You have students who are being asked to work way more than they should be able to work,” said Abhinav Reddy, 22, a master’s student at Harvard University's School of Public Health. 

Reddy said he’s paying $42,500 in tuition and often works more than 40 hours a week researching and teaching. Reddy says Harvard only pays most student for ten hours of their work per week.

“Harvard unilaterally decides how much we get paid, our benefits, and our working conditions,” Reddy said. “We, as students, believe we should have an honest and fair seat at the table so we can negotiate about where our benefits are going and how we’re compensated.”

While students are eager to get bargaining rights for their work, some critics say research and teaching come with the educational experience and should not be considered work.

“The notion that students who are doing teaching or research as part of the curriculum are entitled to bargain with their institution flies in the face of the very nature of what academic life is about,” said Boston attorney Joe Ambash, who represented private colleges in a 2004 labor case that found graduate students at Brown University were not employees.

The 2004 case was overturned by the NLRB's ruling in August, but Ambash said he maintains that graduate students have primarily an educational relationship with their institution.

This decision will not apply to students at state colleges and universities.

Related: Opinion: NLRB Decision Opens Pandora's Box

Ambash said public institutions are different than private institutions, where students are allowed to teach or conduct research as a part of their curriculum.

“[Private institutions are] different than public sector universities where graduate assistants are asked to teach for the purpose of teaching undergraduates and for the purpose of earning money for tuition,” Ambash said.

More than 35,000 teaching and research assistants are already in unions at public colleges and universities.

Ambash said graduate student unions at private institutions could bring unintended consequences, including higher administrative costs and tuition.

“‘It’s not sufficient to say, ‘Okay, maybe they can reallocate the money.’ The question is, ‘What programs in the institution would suffer as a result of having to reallocate funds to deal with unions or to deal with higher stipends?’” Ambash said.

According to economists from Moody’s Investors Services, Harvard University and other institutions with a significant number of graduate students can afford to pay their research and teaching assistants.

At Harvard, Reddy said he’s worried the labor relations board could roll back labor rights and reduce federal research dollars under Trump’s administration and a Republican-led Congress.

“Whenever you’re faced with potential cuts to funding for universities or whenever there’s a possibility that students are marginalize, now, more than ever, we need a union here,” Reddy said.

More than 3,500 graduate students at Harvard University are eligible to vote for a graduate student union. A simple majority would be enough to form a union.

Many private Boston-area schools are expected to follow Harvard University’s lead and pursue their new right to organize, including Boston College.

Harvard administrators have questioned whether the interests of a diverse group of graduate students across 11 schools and 50 degree programs could be served by one contract negotiated by a single labor union.

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