Harvard Grad Workers Are Striking Over Medical Debt and Sexual Harassment

activists hold signs reading "UAW ON STRIKE"

Graduate students at the wealthiest university in the world said they are foregoing dental care, facing thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket medical costs and struggling to get by on salaries as low as $18,000 in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

The unionized graduate workers at Harvard University went on strike Tuesday after more than a year of trying to negotiate a contract. On the picket line at Harvard’s medical campus on Wednesday, Tessa Green, a biophysics Ph.D. student, told fellow strikers, “If I had the rare subtype of asthma that I study, I could not be regularly treated by a specialist in that disease.” That’s because Harvard’s health plan limits students to six specialist visits a year outside of the university’s health services. Mental health visits are limited to 40 per year.

“It’s not OK that we cannot go to therapy once a week all year round, because I don’t know about you: My depression doesn’t disappear in the summer,” Caroline Keroack, a fourth-year Ph.D. student, said during the picket on Thursday at the medical campus. Keroack said she exceeded the cap on specialist visits after developing a mysterious pain in her side that turned out to be appendicitis. She is working two outside jobs and selling artwork to pay the costs.

“Mounting medical bills are sitting on my kitchen counter that I cannot pay,” Keroack said.

Organizers said that perhaps the most “egregious” sticking point in the negotiations is Harvard’s refusal to handle sexual harassment and discrimination through third-party arbitration, the usual process for grievances.

“Harvard wants to carve out sexual harassment and discrimination protections so they would be like promises in the contract that would be unenforceable,” said Emily Unger, a joint medical and Ph.D. student and member of the organizing committee for Harvard’s Longwood campus, which houses the medical and public health schools. This year, Harvard penalized at least two high-profile professors who had faced multiple claims of sexual harassment, including one who was allowed to continue teaching after being disciplined for the allegations in 1983.

“I think that it’s become clear that their system is failing,” Unger said. “Systems all over the place clearly have been failing, and we’re trying to propose a system that would work much better, that would be a neutral, third-party system.”

Harvard has claimed that using third-party arbitration for harassment cases would be “inconsistent” with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education, and subject both victims and perpetrators to “cross examination.” But graduate workers said the approach is consistent with the law, has proven successful at other universities and would generate more trust among students than Harvard’s internal process.

The strike comes as Harvard has made national headlines for refusing to grant tenure to a prominent Latina professor, Lorgia García Peña. Students held a sit-in this week to support García Peña and demand the university create an Ethnic Studies Department. On the picket line at the Longwood campus Thursday, organizers said Harvard lacks a clear process for responding to allegations of racial discrimination, even though more than half of respondents to a recent graduate student survey said they had faced discrimination. Students who report race-based abuse have been told to bring their allegations to the Title IX office, which is intended to handle gender discrimination, or take it up with deans or department chairs, according to Lisa Xu, an organizer with the union who finished a public policy Ph.D. last year. “That’s exactly the situation that we think is untenable,” Xu said.

The strike at Harvard is part of a nationwide surge in organizing by graduate workers, who say they contribute crucial labor to universities as researchers and teaching assistants, but are compensated with poor pay and benefits. While Democratic presidential candidates have voiced support for graduate workers at Harvard and elsewhere, the Trump administration has sought to tamp down on the organizing. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a proposed rule in September to deny legal protections to graduate workers at private universities.

“The NLRB under the Trump administration is trying to take away our right to unionize, and I think that in the same way that we’re resisting other things the Trump administration is doing, we’re resisting this,” Unger said.

By slow-walking the union negotiations, “Harvard is kind of siding with the Trump administration on this,” Unger added.

Harvard has an endowment of about $40 billion, making it the wealthiest university in the world. But graduate students who work in Harvard’s labs and classrooms said the benefits of that wealth aren’t extending to them. Organizers said salaries for fully funded graduate workers can range from $35,000 to $42,000 — a paycheck that makes it hard to get by in one of the country’s most expensive cities. Salaries vary widely across departments, and some workers later in their programs are paid as little as $18,000 when the mandatory fees they have to pay are taken into account. Hourly workers make as little as $12 an hour, the state’s minimum wage; the students are demanding a minimum of $25 an hour for those workers.

Moreover, Harvard currently does not contribute to the cost of its dental plan, which is more than $500 a year, putting it off-limits for many, Unger said. At Thursday’s rally, Keroack said she hasn’t been to the dentist in two years after aging out of her mother’s insurance plan.

The Harvard students have drawn support not only from politicians but from other workers at the university, including construction workers, some of whom walked off the job on Wednesday to show solidarity. Among the speakers at Thursday’s rally was Jean Phane, a custodian and shop steward for SEIU Local 32BJ who said he had worked at Harvard for 22 years.

“We are with you and there will be one of us out here every day you come out,” Phane told the picketing graduate workers. In a follow-up interview, Phane said he and his colleagues face similar issues to the students, including harassment and unfair labor practices.

“We’re union, so we have to look out for each other,” Phane added.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the current salaries of graduate student workers.