Important Labor Fights Are Going Down at Ivy League Schools

The United States' Ivy League schools are commonly associated with old money, the offspring of the country's ruling class and a certain symbolic power that inevitably drifts into the rest of the culture. Yet the last few months have been full of worker agitation at the most elite private institutions. Here's a list of recent Ivy League labor fights.

1. Union bid at Columbia gives graduate students at private universities the right to unionize: In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants are entitled to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The ruling came in regards to a unionization attempt by grad students at Columbia University and it reverses a 2004 ruling (handed down in regards to Brown University) that determined teaching assistants and research assistants were not employees. 

Writing about this huge ruling at In These TimesDavid Moberg explains how the decision could reverberate far beyond New York City:

[The ruling] could increase the rights and rewards of an important group of often underpaid workers in a growing sector with significant economic importance. Higher education depends increasingly on a vast infrastructure of contingent employees. In many cases, the declining standards for those lower ranks erode standards for tenured faculty. Together with student unions, these potentially newly-organized forces could pressure schools toward a more democratic American education.

2. Cafeteria workers at Harvard strike for better wages: The New York Times reports that there's "no end in sight" in a dispute between Harvard University and the employees who work in its cafeterias. The 750 workers are represented by Local 26 and are seeking to be paid at least $35,000 a year, which would be a $5,000 increase from their current $30,000-a-year rate.

It's hard for Harvard to claim poverty as the Cambridge school had a $36 billion endowment and a $63 million operating surplus last year. Harvard is currently putting out calls for unpaid volunteers to scab for the striking workers. In fact, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Administration and Finance Leslie A. Kirwan sent an email requesting staff help out in the dining hall:

“The dining halls are being staffed by HUDS [Harvard University Dining Services] managers, supplemented by Harvard colleagues from around the University who are pitching in to help with a shift or two. If you, or exempt staff [staff that aren't paid hourly or eligible for overtime pay] in your department, are able to suspend some of your regular duties and instead lend a hand to HUDS, I know they would be most grateful.”

Tiffany Ten Eyck, a spokesperson for Local 26, told the Daily Beast: "Dining hall workers feel like they have really modest demands. Especially because Harvard has the resources that it does.”

3. Yale's unions fight for a new contract: Yale’s clerical, technical and maintenance worker unions have spent the last six months fighting for a new contract before the January 20 deadline. Workers say that the campus is expanding but the rate of union jobs hasn't been congruent with the development.

An article in Yale Daily News quotes Pamela O’Donnell, vice president of Local 34 and registrar of the economics department: "Job security for us means growing while the University grows in every area. And we would like to make sure that we get back some of those jobs that we had lost in 2008 because a lot of us are really overworked through attrition.”

Watch footage of a union protest on campus below:

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