In Conversation with Miles Meth

Miles Meth, JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum ’16-17

After years of organizing, Harvard graduate students voted to unionize. Miles Meth, organizer with Harvard Graduate Students Union – United Auto Workers, was instrumental in helping achieve this landmark victory. We caught up with him this month to hear the full story.

JOIN: Congratulations on the Harvard Graduate Students Union win! How did this happen?

MM: Sure, so about 4 years ago there was a group of grad students at Harvard who came together to organize around a specific issue, which was teaching section sizes. Teaching fellows were getting overwhelmed with the size of their teaching sections, and figured they would be able to do their jobs better and have their lives be more manageable if they had smaller teaching section sizes. So they ran a mini-campaign and won that fight, and were able to reduce their section sizes. And after that it was a moment of realizing their own power. And so people started to come together and look at examples of what’s going on in some other schools, thinking about, “Hey, maybe a labor union is really the way to consolidate and formalize this power we’ve seen from this small victory.”

So I think it was in the summer of 2015 that this group of grad workers that was informal formed an organizing committee, had a vote on if they wanted to affiliate with United Auto Workers, and that was over 90% yes. My understanding is the reason it went that way is because the UAW, out of the unions that they had reached out to, was the union that showed the biggest commitment to actually providing resources, and showing that they really meant business, in terms of supporting them. And in 2016, the grad workers at Columbia University overturned a precedent that said that graduate student workers at private universities were not workers. Before, when it said they weren’t workers, they technically didn’t have the right to unionize through the official legal and National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW threw support behind those workers at Columbia, which was quite a risk, because they didn’t officially have the right to form a union. They went through every step of the National Labor Relations Board process. It’s kind of like taking something to the Supreme Court – the Supreme Court of labor – and they overturned that precedent. So the UAW was supporting those grad students at Columbia who took a risk and flipped the precedent, and the UAW, funny enough, it sounds strange – United Auto Workers, grad students, what do they really have in common, but there’s a pretty rich tradition of academic organizing in the UAW, and more grad students are organized with UAW – about 45% – than any with any other union in the country.

What does it practically mean for Harvard Grad workers? What are the tangible results?

That’s a good question. This teaching section sizes thing happened, organizing committee decided to go with the UAW, and then since then, that was in late 2015, since then there was a long process that involved two separate union elections, the first of which was invalidated because Harvard left off several hundred names from the list of voters, so that was in fall 2016, that election happened. The NLRB basically said, that election is null and void, you have to have a new one, and that is what happened most recently.

In terms of getting to your second question of what does this mean, I mean there are a couple things this means. This campaign was really an issues driven campaign. Probably the most important things to focus on are, one, to think about the question of who decides. Before having a union, every single decision about pay, health care, working conditions, what kinds of resources grad students are going to have, whether that’s a Title IX office or resources for international students or whatever, were decisions being passed down from high level administrators. So when grad students come into school they get a letter that says this is going to be your pay your first year and then anything can happen in the years after.

With a union, grad students now have a mechanism to collectively bargain, so Harvard needs their consent to make any changes to pay or healthcare. So now when a grad student comes in for grad school, they’re better able to plan for their future by knowing, hey this is what my stipend will be year to year, this is what my raises are gonna be.

So in terms of long-term planning, it gives grad students that stability and security of knowing what their pay is gonna be year to year, and knowing that they’re gonna have raises built in. For instance, last year Harvard said the endowment didn’t do as well as they would have liked, and so they raised the cost of housing for everyone living in Harvard housing by 3%, which is pretty typical and keeps up with the cost of inflation. But they only increased grad students’ stipends by 1.5%. So for anyone living in Harvard housing they effectively took a pay cut. That’s one example of the kind of thing that couldn’t happen with a union contract, and we know that’s true because the unionized workers at Harvard all got their regularly scheduled raises.

So that’s the stuff around pay specifically. I think another big piece of this that’s an issue around the country right now that we’re seeing through the #MeToo movement is the issue of sexual harassment. Harvard is no exception to this. There recently was a big case that was brought back to national attention through an article in Chronicle magazine, of a professor in the Department of Government, Jorge Dominguez, who in the 80s had been accused of sexually harassing some students, and had been reprimanded by the university. And then since then, it was just a slap on the wrist, he had maintained his post and continued to be harassing people, and it was just shown that comments from students on evaluations and stuff were getting swept under the rug. And so a lot of, especially, women on the organizing committee made sexual harassment protections really a central issue to this campaign. So there are a couple of ways that having a union can provide protections.

In the case of sexual harassment, any victim would have the right to a third party arbitration process. So having somebody who’s not connected to the union, not connected to the university, oversee that process in a fair way. As it stands right now, the Title IX office can have the best intentions and have a Title IX officer who’s competent, kind, and do everything right, but ultimately they’re answering to their boss’ boss, who is the president of the university, or who is on the board of trustees of the corporation of Harvard. This is obviously a conflict of interest, as these people are interested in protecting the Harvard brand. If it comes down to professor vs. grad student, there’s a power dynamic there in which the university has an interest in protecting the name of a professor or somebody who brings in a lot of grants rather than one grad student. So having a third party arbitrator can be a really powerful process, and we’ve seen that work at places like the University of Connecticut (another UAW school), where a woman who left her position because of harassment got her job back by using a third party arbitration case through the union.

What were some of your personal organizing efforts to help make this happen?

Probably my biggest success or gratifying experience I had was with the Physics Department. So in the previous election that was invalidated, the Physics Department was a very tough place to organize. One of the most vocal anti-union grad students came out of the Physics Department. He created a whole blog, and basically the culture of the department was such that it was extremely unpopular to be publicly supportive of the union.

So when I came in about nine months ago, there was one grad student in physics who was willing to be publicly pro-union. And even he was very nervous to send emails to the department, or talk to his coworkers about it, just felt extremely nervous about that. And so, I mean it was a process over a series of months, bit by bit, working with him to start by – “OK, who’s one other person that you know that’s pro-union that we can talk to?” And then having that conversation, working with them to build a smaller network and talk to that person’s friend that they know is quietly pro-union. And by the end of the campaign a group of 11 grad students signed a letter to the department expressing their support and telling people to get out and vote. So going from one person to 11 was an extraordinary process, and ultimately, you know, there’s nothing fancy about organizing. It’s people talking to one another over time, having multiple conversations, figuring out what issues matter, and realizing that when they come together they have some ability to change them. But it’s just a lot about building trust. I think just something that feels really cool, being at the vote count, there’s just this feeling of sitting across from Harvard’s lawyers, who they hired from Morgan Brown & Joy, who are a thousand bucks an hour, and in the face of the power that Harvard has through organized money, knowing that actually there’s only so much they can do through that. They have a lot of power in money, but we have power in our relationships with one another. And having thousands upon thousands of conversations with each other, and in this case that was enough to beat out that money and win this election. It’s a really great feeling.

Did you use any of your JOIN training in this campaign?

Absolutely. I think about the trainings I got from JOIN and how they’ve been embedded in my organizing all the time. Everything from power mapping to how to have an effective one on one. I think a big piece I took from being a JOIN Fellow was what I would call relationality, or relational culture. Under times of extreme pressure, maintaining your own humanity and the humanity of the people you’re working with. So I, as a staff organizer, was making a lot of asks of grad students who were volunteering their time for the most part, to this effort and to this movement. In that sense the leadership development piece, I definitely remember those trainings, and thinking about how, bit by bit, what are small specific asks that I can have of people that I think they can do, that are asks that I’m not asking them to do something that I wouldn’t do, that I think are reasonable, and that I feel that I can actually support them in. So I definitely remember components of that leadership development training that we had, that just showed that if you make a huge ask of somebody, especially if it’s broad and unspecific – the worst that you can ask somebody is, “Hey, do you want to get more involved in organizing?” People are always gonna say no, I’m too busy, I’ve got all these other things going on. If you come to somebody with a list of people in their department and say, “Hey, are there three people here who you think that we can pick out and have conversations with in the next week?” That more specific, more targeted, more reasonable, is always gonna be what gets people to actually feel like they have a stake in it, first of all, and also that they’re able to contribute.

Miles Meth is an organizer with Harvard Graduate Students Union – United Auto Workers, and a JOIN Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum ’16-17. Read more about the vote to unionize in the Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson.

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