HGSU-UAW Demands Stronger Administrative Commitment for COVID-19 Alleviation

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HGSU-UAW Demands Stronger Administrative Commitment for COVID-19 Alleviation

As the pandemic ensues, graduate students are left with little certainty from the administration, while questions about expiring funding and resource availability arise 

By MARY JULIA KOCH

On Wednesday, April 29, Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) members held a virtual press conference to demand for university support and the administration’s commitment to stable pay and benefits amidst the current coronavirus pandemic. They argued that, in order to fully devote themselves to their research for COVID-19 and to attain some financial stability in these uncertain times, Harvard must reach a contract for student workers. 

“All we are asking is for the administration to demonstrate that they respect the work we do for Harvard by reaching a fair and equitable contract for student workers this spring,” says Inga Holmdahl, who researches the risk of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We need to have our full attention to focus on COVID-19 and how to get the world through the pandemic.”

The conference was led by a panel of bargaining committee members from Harvard’s various schools, as well as Cambridge City Councillor Quinton Zondervan who stood in complete solidarity with the students. He has been collecting signatures in a petition asking Harvard and MIT to do more in supporting their communities in this crisis. “With chaos comes opportunity,” Zondervan said, “and this is a great opportunity to get this contract complete.”

The chaos of the pandemic has upended the lives and research of Harvard student workers. “Many of us cannot access our work: libraries, labs, archives. Job offers are getting rescinded,” said Nate Grau, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the History Department. He explained that funding for his archival research has been delayed to January and will potentially be canceled if social distancing conditions persist. In addition, research preparation is “completely impossible” right now, so he is barred from acquiring new material for his dissertation. These interruptions are evidence of how “this pandemic has fundamentally disrupted the professional trajectories of graduate scholars.” With a fair contract that provides bridge funding, Grau contended, student workers will be able to “produce scholarship that we as professionals and Harvard as an institution can be proud of.”

Maya Anjur-Dietrich, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering, explained she can conduct some of the research for her dissertation remotely, but a large amount of it must be done in person. The longer she is unable to access her lab, the longer she will need to write up her findings. This delay will affect her and other experimental scientists’ ability to receive grants and fellowships in the future.

Interruptions in research carry various financial implications. Shireen Hamza, a fifth-year in the History of Science Department, explained that researchers have to pay thousands of dollars in healthcare and facilities fees after the fifth year of their doctoral programs. The delay in her research has exacerbated the burden of these fees, and it has also prevented her from accessing a Fulbright grant, which would have provided a stipend for her to live on at this time. “Harvard has done nothing concrete to address students in my situation who have found external funding, but which is no longer accessible,” Hamza said. 

She expressed that students who are most financially vulnerable are the ones who are hardest hit right now: “COVID-19 doesn’t impact everyone equally.” 

Many student workers are no longer guaranteed teaching positions to support themselves and are concerned about soon entering an economically insecure job market. Justin Bloesch, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Economics Department, said that graduating students entering the academic job market “are very uncertain about having income at all.”

Despite the issues this pandemic has caused in student research and funding, it has shown the value that student workers offer to Harvard and society at large. “We are really proud of people that are stepping up and helping in any way possible outside their comfort zone to help deal with evolving challenges from the pandemic,” said Anjur-Dietrich. She shared that many scholars in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have turned their focus to COVID-19 related work. These efforts include conducting experimental research, providing assistance to healthcare workers, and expanding education and outreach.

“Grad student labor has always been and will continue to be central to the production and dissemination of knowledge that will help us collectively deal with this crisis,” said Nishant Kishore, a third-year Ph.D. student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For the past couple months, he has been working around the clock on COVID-19 research. His work uses large data sets from social media providers, advertising technology, and cell phone companies to study the effects of social distancing policies on the transition dynamics of the disease. “To sustain our ability to contribute to ongoing efforts, to better understand and combat the spread of COVID-19,” Kishore said, “Grad student workers need protections that would come with the fair contract.”

The bargaining committee argued that Harvard’s peer institutions have better handled the copious problems student workers are currently facing. UChicago has already funded all of their student workers; Yale has offered the option to extend guaranteed funding by one year for Ph.D. students. Harvard, however, has not yet addressed a contingency plan in their funding in general or in response to the pandemic, the committee maintained.

To continue their COVID-19 efforts and other research initiatives, student workers “must signal to the university how important our labor actually is,” Kishore said. “We’re doing our jobs,” Grau added. “It’s time for Harvard to come to the table and have our back.

Now, especially at this time of global emergency, HGSU urges the University to respond to their demands. This call for support is part of an ongoing tension between the university and its student workers. In April 2018, student workers from all departments joined together to form Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers (HGSU-UAW). They have sought a union contract with the university to ensure fair pay, comprehensive and affordable healthcare, and protections from harassment and discrimination. After their month-long strike in December, Harvard and its graduate student union had reached new agreements, but they still had not settled on a first contract.

Mary Julia Koch ‘23 (mkoch@college.harvard.edu) writes News for the Indy. 

Photograph by Marissa Garcia ’21 (marissagarcia@college.harvard.edu), depicting earlier strikes from December 2019.