Forming a Union

What is Harvard Academic Workers-UAW?

We are non-tenure-track academic workers at Harvard forming a union in order to improve our working conditions. While we span a wide array of academic fields, our commitment to research and teaching unites us. Our work plays a critical role in driving Harvard’s world-leading research and educational programs. We believe that joining together in a union will enable us to negotiate improvements to wages, benefits, and more that enhance our ability to provide quality instruction and research. As part of the UAW, we are also joining together with more than 100,000 teachers, researchers and other workers at major universities across the US, including Harvard, Columbia, University of Massachusetts, New York University, and the University of California already represented by the UAW.

What is a union? Why should we have one?

A union is an organized group of workers who act collectively to build power and exert more democratic control over their working conditions. Through a union, workers can bargain collectively for improvements to wages, benefits, and other terms of employment through collective bargaining, and secure those improvements in a union contract.


Collective bargaining is a process that rebalances the power relationship between employees and their employer. Currently, without a union, Harvard sets the terms of our employment. Harvard can and does change these terms unilaterally, unfairly, and without our input or consent. Under collective bargaining, we elect representatives to negotiate with Harvard over the terms of our employment. When we reach an agreement with Harvard, workers vote on whether to ratify that agreement. When ratified, the agreement  becomes a legally-binding contract.


The point of having a union is simple. With a union, we non-tenure track (NTT) academic workers at Harvard gain power to improve our pay, benefits, and other working conditions through negotiation with the university administration. Without a union, Harvard administrators unilaterally set and modify our terms of employment without our input or consent. Tens of thousands of academic workers have formed unions and won improvements in recent years.

Who would be part of our union?

In our organizing at Harvard, we are bringing together and aim to represent non-tenure-track academic appointees across the whole university. This includes NTT teaching and research workers, such as lecturers, preceptors, instructors, research scientists, research associates, postdoctoral researchers, and others who do similar work, regardless of funding source.


Having external funding does not disqualify you from the right to representation. Many workers in our union hold positions funded by external sources such as research grants from the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health. But if Harvard is not your employer (e.g., if you work for the Smithsonian Institute at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics, or work for a Harvard affiliated hospital instead of the university itself) or you have a supervisory or managerial role, you may not be eligible for representation by our union. If you have questions about your status, reach out to a union organizer in your department or contact us by email at

Why are we organizing with the UAW?

The United Auto Workers (UAW) is a union of nearly 400,000 workers across diverse industries and sectors. The UAW encompasses over 100,000 academic workers across the United States, a figure that is growing all the time and includes more than 4,000 student workers here at Harvard.


The UAW has a strong presence in academia and in this region: 


Here in Boston, UAW includes the Harvard Graduate Student Union (UAW Local 5118), BU clerical and technical workers (UAW Local 2324) and active organizing campaigns for Boston College graduate workers (BCGEU-UAW) and Northeastern graduate workers (GENU-UAW). UMass graduate workers and adjunct faculty are also part of the UAW (Locals 2322 and 1596), and Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate workers recently voted to join the UAW. 


UAW local unions in New York include NYU grad workers (GSOC-UAW Local 2110), NYU & New School adjuncts (ACT-UAW Local 7902), Barnard contingent faculty (BCF-UAW Local 2110), Columbia grad workers (GWC-UAW Local 2110), New School grad workers (SENS-UAW) and Columbia postdoctoral workers (UAW Local 4100). In Connecticut, graduate workers and postdoctoral researchers are represented by UAW Local 6950.  In New York City, for instance, over 10,000 academic workers have chosen to join the UAW in the last four years alone.


And beyond Boston and the Northeast there are tens of thousands of academic workers at the University of California, the California State Universities, and University of Washington (Locals 5810, 4123, and 4121) who are part of our union.


UAW members, officers, and staff are committed to supporting workers in all areas of higher education and have helped academic workers secure higher salaries, greater job security, and improved working conditions. They have also helped workers successfully negotiate with the Harvard administration, and are well positioned to understand the complexities of our situation and our possible avenues of redress.

How do we form a union?
  1. The process begins with OUTREACH across the university: we talk to each other to better understand our common interests and shared concerns and build an organizing committee that has participants from across campus. 
  2. We then launch a CARD DRIVE where workers sign cards authorizing HAW-UAW to represent us in collective bargaining with Harvard over our wages, benefits, working conditions, and the terms of our employment.
  3. Once a majority of NTT workers have signed union authorization cards for HAW-UAW, we can ask Harvard to VOLUNTARILY RECOGNIZE our union and begin bargaining, or we can submit a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a vote on unionization. We will make the strategic decision that makes the most sense for our campaign at that juncture. If our union is certified, either through voluntary recognition or an NLRB election, Harvard will have a legal obligation to bargain in good faith with HAW-UAW. 
  4. We hold BARGAINING COMMITTEE ELECTIONS and choose representatives from our ranks to study current working conditions, coordinate negotiations, and communicate with us about the process.
  5. The bargaining committee surveys us and works to DRAFT GOALS FOR NEGOTIATION that reflect our needs, concerns, and priorities.
  6. We vote to approve GOALS FOR NEGOTIATION and ensure that the bargaining committee is working to secure meaningful gains for all of us.
  7. With the support and resources of our union, the UAW, the bargaining committee works to reach a collective bargaining agreement through NEGOTIATION with Harvard.
How can one union represent the interests of many different schools and departments?

Many academic unions cover employees with diverse interests. At universities across the United States, academic workers in the UAW have negotiated strong contracts that cover different titles, schools and departments. These contracts address issues that affect all workers, such as health, dental and vision benefits, guaranteed annual pay increases, and sick leave and family benefits, while simultaneously including provisions that may be important to a particular group or section of the workforce.

I’m an international scholar working on a visa. Can I be part of the union?

Absolutely. The work authorization you have as an international worker in the US brings with it a number of workplace rights, including the same right as domestic workers to join and/or form a union with your coworkers. International workers have already belonged to NTT unions for years at Columbia, the University of California, the University of Washington, and dozens of other schools. You can read about workplace rights for international workers here. There are versions in languages other than English available here.

Who will be in charge of the union?

Collective bargaining is a democratic, worker-led process. We NTT workers are the union; we are in charge. We work together to shape the process, determine our priorities, and set terms for negotiation. The workers must democratically approve any agreement reached by the Harvard administration and our elected bargaining team before it becomes a legally binding contract.

How can I get involved?

First, you can sign an authorization card to register your support for unionization and encourage your coworkers to sign a card as well. You can also make a testimonial explaining why you want a union. There are many other ways you can join our efforts, from organizing in your department or others, participating in one of our subcommittees, and more. If you want to get more involved with this campaign, please contact us.


Ultimately, you decide how involved you want to be, and in what ways. But each new supporter improves our chances of success. Our union is an organization run democratically by its members, and the more we support our union in ways big and small, the stronger we are together.

What Does it Mean to be Part of HAW-UAW?

What does signing an authorization card involve?

Signing an authorization card is one of the necessary steps in the process to having our union recognized in order to bargain with the university. After a majority of folks have signed an authorization card expressing interest in joining HAW-UAW, we can move into the next steps to getting recognized as a union.


Signing an authorization card—in paper or electronic form—means that you would like the HAW-UAW to represent you in collective bargaining with the Harvard administration.

Who will know I've signed a card?

Authorization cards are confidential. The union does not share signed cards or the list of card signers with the university. In order to verify support for our union, we will have to submit signed cards to either a neutral third party (such as an arbitrator) if Harvard agrees to voluntarily recognize our union, or to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if we file for an election. In either case, the neutral party or the NLRB will also respect the confidentiality of the cards and will not share the cards or the names of those who signed with the university.

Could Harvard hold supporting the union against me?

Retaliation for union activity is against the law, and you have rights as a Harvard employee and union supporter. Thousands of Harvard employees have already organized with unions, including the UAW, and bargained with the administration. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees labor organizing, explains your rights in this way: You have the right to organize a union to negotiate with your employer over your terms and conditions of employment. This includes your right to distribute union literature, wear union buttons, t-shirts, or other insignia, solicit coworkers to sign union authorization cards, and discuss the union with coworkers. You can’t be fired, disciplined, demoted, or penalized in any way for engaging in these activities.

We can uphold these rights by appeal to the NLRB, but we also do so on a daily basis through our solidarity–by organizing, advocating, and fighting together rather than as individuals, and by protecting our members and fighting back if the university retaliates against any one us.If you have concerns or feel that you are being retaliated against, contact us—we can help.

What are membership dues? Why are dues important?

Dues provide us with the resources necessary to have a strong union by funding contract enforcement, organizing, and other union activities. Dues-funding also ensures that our union is financially and operationally independent and that its elected officers and hired staff are accountable to us–the members.


Dues are allocated to three primary functions: (1) our local union operations; (2) the UAW International, which, among other things, provides ongoing organizing, legal and financial support to local unions within the UAW like ours; and (3) the UAW strike and defense fund, which supports UAW workers on strike.

When do we start paying dues? How much will dues be?

The UAW is already supporting our organizing and the negotiation of our first contract, and no one will pay dues or fees until we have bargained and ratified a contract. Dues in the UAW are 1.44% of gross pay received for work performed that is covered by the contract. Dues are not assessed on the monetary value of benefits such as health care premiums, tuition remission, or child care. 


The value of increased wages and benefits in the first contract typically outweighs the cost of dues. Here are a few examples:


    • In 2017, Barnard’s NTT faculty union negotiated a 16% salary floor increase, as well as larger increases in per-course pay for part-time NTT faculty.
    • Boston University’s NTT faculty union secured an average salary increase of 15% in the first year of their initial contract in 2017, with the lowest-paid members receiving the biggest increases; they also won automatic annual cost-of-living increases.
    • Fordham’s NTT faculty union negotiated a median salary increase of 13% over the first three years of their initial contract, starting in 2018; they also secured two fully-paid professional development semester leaves for all full-time faculty members who have worked for at least five years.
    • In their 2022 agreement, most University of California postdoctoral researchers will receive a 20-23% salary increase (up to $12,000) by October 2023; over the course of 5 years as a Postdoc at UC, the current lowest paid Postdoc would see a 57% salary increase. Typical Academic Researchers in their 2022 agreement at UC will receive 29% in salary increases (between scale and merit increases) over the life of the contract.
    • In 2020 Columbia University postdocs negotiated an increased salary floor to $60,000 for Postdocs and $66,100 for Associate Researchers, the highest  postdoc minimums in NYC.
Am I required to join the union?

Once we have a contract, we would encourage everyone to be part of the union because together we have more power to make change, but no one is required to be a member of the union. However, since everyone in the bargaining unit receives all the benefits of the union contract, and because unions are legally required to enforce contracts for members and non-members alike, most union contracts include a requirement that non-members pay an “agency fee” (often assessed at the same rate as membership dues), so that the cost of contract negotiation and contract enforcement is shared equitably by those who benefit from them.

Would we have to strike?

A strike is a powerful action that we may or may not choose to take in the course of seeking union recognition or during contract negotiations. As with all union decisions, we would make the decision to strike through a democratic process. Under the UAW constitution, two-thirds of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote “yes” in order to authorize a strike. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual worker’s own decision whether or not to participate in an authorized strike. 


If ever we do decide that striking is necessary, we will have the support of the entire UAW, and we will seek the support of fellow union members on campus and in Greater Boston, and of numerous elected officials and community members. We have seen such shows of solidary on the Harvard campus in recent years, such as when the Harvard graduate workers (UAW Local 5118) went on strike to successfully win their first contract, and before them when the dining hall workers (UniteHERE Local 26) went on strike while negotiating their next contract

Goals at HAW-UAW​

What common concerns have Harvard NTT academic workers raised about working conditions?

While conversations to determine our goals are ongoing, some common themes have arisen in our organizing conversations. Many NTT workers expressed concern about low or stagnant salaries that make it difficult to live comfortably or raise a family in the Boston area, and we have found near-universal frustration with appointment timelines and job security (mainly the lack thereof). In addition, many are worried about childcare support and appointment time-caps.


At present, the broad terms are laid out in our letters of employment or reappointment, and in various faculty handbooks–but these documents do not account for the specific ways our workloads are structured from semester to semester, year to year, nor are they actually binding contracts. Many of the “policies” that shape our professional lives are unwritten, informal agreements within individual departments, determined by deliberation among full faculty or unilaterally by department chairs. While these agreements may be beneficial for some, they leave all of us vulnerable to the individual personalities of chairs, deans, and presidents. Because these agreements are not binding, they can be dissolved without warning or explanation, upending schedules, research, and long-term plans.


Without collective bargaining, NTT workers are vulnerable to exploitation in ways that tenured faculty and other unionized staff are not. We are precarious employees who are encouraged, directly and indirectly, to take on uncompensated work in pursuit of a favorable outcome at our next review or reappointment. 


Through the collective bargaining process, we would negotiate a binding agreement setting forth terms that could not be unilaterally changed by the University.

I like some parts of my job. Will a union contract force me to change things I don’t want to change?

Collective bargaining allows us to bargain for improvements in the areas where we want to do so, as well as to secure the things we already like. We will decide our bargaining priorities in contract negotiations, and vote to ratify the contract for it to take effect. Our union is made up of workers who understand the unique structure of academic work and the ways it varies across the university, and we would bargain for policies on that basis. We decide what to bargain for and what proposals would best serve our needs.


The goal of a contract is to increase our security, our well-being, and our autonomy–not to codify every last aspect of our working lives. Contracts may establish floors and guarantees around compensation and offer new forms of support or recourse to address workplace problems.

Could we end up worse off with a union contract?

This has not been the result of first union contracts for other academic workers. Once a union is certified, Harvard cannot unilaterally change the terms or conditions of our work. Instead, Harvard must bargain in good faith with us over pay, benefits, and other terms of employment. As a result, collective bargaining can only make these items worse if we agree to it. If the administration came to the table offering less than the status quo, the bargaining committee can reject those terms.