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Equality Labs Congratulates Harvard Graduate Student Union In Historic Win for Workers Rights and Caste Equity

In a landmark win at Harvard, the Harvard Graduate Student Union has ratified a 4-Year Contract with 70.6% approval. This contract was a hard won victory which resulted after a three-day strike, a second strike threat, and eight months of negotiation. A key provision of the contract is the addition of caste as a protected category for all graduate and undergraduate student workers at Harvard. This historic addition marks Harvard as the first Ivy League school to have caste equity protections in its non-discrimination clause for unionized student workers. This decision will impact more than 4,900 student workers at Harvard and the surrounding Harvard community.

With this addition, Harvard joins UC Davis, Colby College, Brandeis University, and many other universities across the nation in supporting students, faculty, and staff, in the face of rampant caste-based discrimination.

Driven in partnership with caste-oppressed community members, this win is part of a larger national movement for caste equity that aims to protect caste-oppressed students, workers, and communities across the country.

Leaders in the fight for caste equity congratulate this monumental step in recognizing caste as a protected category. Quotes from students and community:

Aparna Gopalan Harvard Graduate Student Union Organizer

Caste has always been about labor and labor has always been about forms of racialized exclusion like caste. So when I was elected to my union’s bargaining committee, I saw it as our duty to go to bat for protections against racism, sexism, and finally also casteism. With the incredible support of Equality Labs as well as the Harvard Anti-Caste Coalition, the Harvard Graduate Students Union has become one of the first higher education labor unions to have secured protections against caste discrimination in a collective bargaining agreement. This also marks the first time Harvard or any Ivy League institution has officially decided to include caste as a protected category. HGSU’s win has already created remarkable precedent for workers and students at other universities as they fight against caste injustice in the United States, and we will support these struggles in every way we can.

Raj Muthu – Dalit Alumni of Harvard As an alumni I can testify that I have often witnessed and experienced caste discrimination play out in the Harvard South Asian community. From derogatory comments about the intellect of oppressed caste students, to proudly narrating their activism against affirmative action in India prior to their admission into Harvard, to a complete cultural monopoly of South Asian/India celebrations the deep sense of alienation, humiliation, and social exclusion I experienced made me constantly vigilant and worried about the consequences of being outed as a Dalit in Harvard’s South Asian circles.

This win is a small but critical step in ensuring that there is at least an avenue of recourse for students like me who have experienced caste-based discrimination at Harvard and that the wellbeing of caste oppressed students like me matter.

Ajantha Subramanium, Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies Professor of Anthropology and of South Asian Studies Chair, Department of Anthropology Harvard University

Caste is a largely hidden yet deeply consequential part of institutional life in the United States. The inheritances of caste have determined who has the means to come to the U.S. from South Asia and succeed educationally, economically and professionally. Among South Asian Americans, oppressed castes are a small minority who face the threat of stigma and discrimination by the much larger population of privileged castes. But despite the reality of U.S. casteism, there are very few universities that have added caste to their non-discrimination policies. Until recently, only Brandeis University, University of California, Davis, Colby College, and Carleton University had done so. Now, thanks to the collective effort and determination of the Harvard Graduate Student Union, Harvard too has recognized the need to follow suit. HGSU’s success in securing protections against caste discrimination in their collective bargaining agreement is a major victory. It will empower oppressed caste students and employees to find recourse for experiences of discrimination. It will generate more awareness among privileged castes at Harvard of the opportunities afforded by their caste backgrounds. It will encourage Harvard to expand the scope of student, faculty, and staff recruitment by consciously reaching out to oppressed caste groups. Finally, HGSU’s victory will be a source of inspiration for everyone who is part of the effort to build an anti-caste movement in the U.S.

Ria Anti-Caste Community Member and Staff at Harvard

This win is a tremendous victory for the national movement toward caste abolition. It is no coincidence that the fight was raised by student workers who are a part of the graduate student union and have struggled for fair wages and much more. The South Asian demographic is very much viewed as a monolith at the university, dominated by caste priviliged folks of Indian origin. But our community is interfaith, intercaste, and committed to caste equity. This win is an incredible first step toward more inclusivity, consciousness, and justice for South Asians and especially caste oppressed stakeholders at Harvard University and in American higher education overall.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan Executive Director, Equality Labs “The courage of the Harvard Graduate Student Union and the inter caste and interfaith coalition of community and students who helped make this win possible is inspiring. These leaders have worked tirelessly to make this win happen while also supporting students experiencing caste discrimination. These workers represent the future of our communities and we need to follow their lead as they create American institutions that are caste equitable for all. Thank you Harvard Graduate Student Union for taking this courageous step. It is a reminder that Caste equity is a workers right. Caste equity is a student’s rights. Caste is a human and civil rights issue that impacts us all. We look forward to Harvard implementing this policy for the betterment of all of our communities.”