A Troubled Year For Labor Relations
Strikes at Harvard Reflect New Tensions
"You get a pat on the back and a big smile, 'Oh, we don't operate like that!' from Harvard," Berry says, "well we want more than just a pat on the back and a big smile."
With the exception of some scuffles in the late 1930's, Harvard's labor relations with its employees have been comparatively peaceful. This spring, however, Harvard--for the first time in its history--had to put up with picket lines around the University.
The strikes did not seriously disrupt the life of the University--to the disappointment of some of the strikers. Thus, they are not significant because of the havoc they worked on Harvard. But the strikes do reflect the difficulties of dealing with employees' changing needs; and the misunderstandings that lie behind at least one of the strikes points out the painful lack of frequent communication between labor and management.
Nearly every one of Harvard's thousands of non-professional employees belongs to a union. Some belong to small independent unions like the Harvard University Employees' Representative Association or the Harvard Police Association, others to large affiliated groups like the International Chefs and Pastry Cooks' Union (AFL-CIO) or the International Union of Operating Engineers (AFL-CIO). In recent years the trend has been towards affiliaiton with large AFL-CIO unions because of their highly qualified business agents and bargainers. The small independent unions choose their bargaining committees from within their own membership and these men have grown to feel inadequate when trying to get a contract from the professionals in the Harvard Personnel Office. Says one man who served on a bargaining committee, "you come in to bargain after working all day and then have to face these whiz guys. It just doesn't work."
"Little associations," he added, "just can't deal with Harvard on Harvard's level. Maybe years ago, but not anymore."
Last fall two groups of Harvard workers, issuing similar complaints, looked into the idea of affiliation with unions that have professional business agents. A number of employees at the printing office, mostly press-cameramen, strippers, platemakers, and pressmen, decided to break away from the H.U. Employees Representative Association. In December they became affiliated with the International Lithographers and Photoengravers' Union (AFL-CIO), a union famed for its consistently good (as far as the workers are concerned) contracts.
Also in December, the members of the Buildings and Grounds Maintenance Association, a union that represents the 265 B&G employees who are skilled tradesmen or craftsmen, voted to affiliate with a group known as the Boston Crafts Maintenance Council AFL-CIO). The Crafts Maintenance Council is not a union itself but rather a committee of craft union business agents. Under the Crafts Maintenance Council plan, the members of the BGMA would join the unions appropriate to their trades, and the committee of business agents from these unions would bargain at Harvard for the men.
Since the vote to affiliate with the BCMC had been overwhelmingly clear, the Crafts Maintenance Council expected that Harvard would readily recognize it as the bargaining agent for the old BGMA membership, much as the University had recognized the LPIU as the printing office employees' bargainer.
But Harvard did not and would not recognize the Crafts Maintenance Council as the bargaining agent for the BGMA membership. The University pointed out that another union, the Building Services Employees International (AFL-CIO) claimed that it represented the BMGA membership and that the BSEIU had filed petitions with the Massachusetts State Labor Relations Board making such claims. The University said that as an employer it would violate national labor policy by arbitrarily choosing one of the contesting unions as the bargaining agent for the BGMA membership. It therefore counseled patience and said that it would let a state labor board election determine which union should represent the men.
The BGMA and BCMC people saw the situation in another light, however. To them, the claims of the Building Service Employees' Union that it represented the BGMA membership were obviously ridiculous. In the summer and fall of 1966 when the BGMA was considering affiliation with an AFL-CIO union, the BSEIU, which represents maintenance workers at many colleges and universities, was one of the ones they turned to. BSEIU officers even sent a supply of cards, which if signed by a majority of the BGMA membership, would have designated the BSEIU as the official bargaining agent for the membership.
BGMA officers rejected the BSEIU when they became fearful that the affiliation with the BSEIU might mean affiliation with unskilled persons and therefore wage losses. "I don't want anyone, especially management, to mistake me for a janitor," one BGMA carpenter said. The BGMA's officers also destroyed what few BSEIU authorization cards had been signed.
This action, plus the clarity of the membership's intent when the BGMA voted on December 7, 1966, to affiliate with the Boston Crafts Maintenance Council should have convinced Harvard that the BSEIU had no real basis for its claims, the BGMA and the BCMC officers felt. The officers saw only skulduggery in Harvard's insistence that there should be a state-run election.
They felt and still feel certain that they could win a state election, but they also felt certain that a backlog of other cases meant that any state election would be months away. Furthermore, the BGMA and BCMC officers argued that the final resolution of the dispute was even further away since they felt sure that the BSEIU would appeal the results of the election.
Thus, they reasoned that it could well be late 1967 or early 1968 before bargaining sessions with Harvard got underway. This would mean a time span of approximately a year and a half between the technical expiration date of the BGMA's last contract and the beginning of the bargaining for a new contract. The union would be able to get only the smallest pay settlements retroactive to the last contract because of the great time span. Thus, they felt that Harvard was operating primarily out of economic motives and not out of consideration for its employees in insisting upon a state-run election.
The union officers also could not understand why Harvard was not willing to accept the results of the December 7, 1966, merger vote as sign of the intent of the BGMA's membership, nor could they understand why Harvard was unwilling to hold its own election to select a bargaining agent for the BGMA.
An Administration official once explained that standard labor policy forbad an involved party, such as an employer or a union, from making the decision about disputed representation, no matter how small the dispute. The machinery of the state labor relations board which had already been engaged by one of the disputing unions was, he said, the proper machinery to settle this type of dispute. It was, he noted, the method that had been used for nearly 30 years to settle similar disputes at Harvard. Unfortunately, there was little communication between the Administration and the BGMA membership until a strike vote had been taken and positions had hardened. And equally unfortunately no one in the union was asking the Administration for an explanation.
Especially galling to the BGMA membership was Harvard's recognition of the LPIU as the bargaining agent for the 34 Printing Office employees. They did not see any difference between their move to affiliate with the BCMC and the printing employees' affiliation with the LPIU. As negotiations between the University and the LPIU began to falter, however, many BGMA members grew more convinced that Harvard, underneath it all, was really antiunion.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Labor Relations Board, in late April, conducted three days of public hearings on the BGMA-BSEIU-BCMC-Harvard dispute.
The Massachusetts State Labor Relations Board has binding jurisdiction only over cases arising from "industry and commerce." Thus, Harvard, as a non-profit organization is not bound by any of the state board's decisions or rulings. Harvard's lawyers, the Boston firm of Ropes & Gray, mentioned at the hearing's outset that Harvard was not waiving any of its rights.
To most BGMA people this meant only that Harvard had given forewarning of its intention to renege if the results of the election were not pleasing to the University. To their allies, the BCMC officers, Harvard's statement was a clear indication that the University intended to use legal means to destroy the effectiveness of an election--an election which the BCMC said it was sure it would win.
The Worcester Case
Not long ago, one of the BCMC's component unions, the International Union of Operating Engineers (AFL-CIO) (which has a branch at Harvard) won a State Board election to represent some workers at the Worcester (Mass.) Hospital. The Hospital took the state labor relations board to court. In a decision which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld, a Superior Court set aside the election on the grounds that the state board had no jurisdiction with a non-profit institution.
The state labor relations board expects to draw up a ballot for the Harvard case soon (besides the BSEIU and the BGMA-BCMC, a small group of dissident BGMA members seeking to remain independent has asked to be placed on the ballot as the Buildings and Grounds Maintenance Association) and conduct an election by mid-July. But Donn Berry, secretary-treasurer of the BCMC, says his group might not participate unless "We get a written guarantee from Harvard that the election results are final and binding."
"You get a pat on the back and a big smile, 'Oh, we don't operate like that!' from Harvard," Berry says, "well, we want more than just a pat on the back and a big smile."
One impartial observer who followed the hearings says, however, that the Harvard statement was more a pro forma gesture rather than document of intent. He feels certain from observing the hearings that it is Harvard's intention to bargain with the union that truly represents the BGMA workers.
The deterioration of talks between Harvard and the LPIU further strengthened anti-Harvard feeling among BGMA members, especially since the LPIU, which has a history of almost no strikes, was beginning to talk about striking the University.
By early May when the LPIU voted to strike, BGMA men began to talk about other grievances besides the recognition of their bargaining. One heard more and more talk of poor working conditions, threats, overbearing, bosses, and intimidation. In mid-May, the Buildings and Grounds Maintenance Association membership authorized a strike against the University.
The printers' strike ended early this week with a settlement both sides praised. But as of yesterday, the BGMA men were still out trying to force the University into recognizing the BCMC as their bargaining agent. Whether the strikers, who have said they will on "two hours notice" participate in an election, will participate in the state one without a legal guarantee from Harvard remains to be seen