A Silent Majority?

BRASS TACKS

THE ONCE pulsating spirit of rebellion in the Square seems to have vanished now, perhaps into the depths of an MBTA Hades. Unlike Commencement circa 1970, tomorrow's ceremony will probably proceed without visible protest. But look carefully. Look carefully, as one senior after another marches silently into the Tercentary Theater between Widener Library and Memorial Church. They are silent--no riots, no speeches, no alternate ceremonies--but the vast majority are protesting.

More than 90 per cent of the graduating Harvard seniors, and about half of the graduate students receiving their diplomas, are breaking away from nearly 50 years of Harvard tradition. To show their support for about 35 striking workers at Cotrell and Leonard, the Albany-based manufacturer of Harvard's traditional graduation cap and gown, most students are instead wearing an alternate Commencement outfit.

But as the silent majority takes its final steps as Harvard students, a smaller more vocal group will probably linger outside the gates around the Yard to hand out anti-Cotrell and Leonard literature and to enlist support among Commencement participants. Such a group, made up of officials from the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and student sympathizers, picketted Cornell's commencement ceremonies last week. And ILGWU officials have repeatedly warned the Harvard community that if anyone wears Cotrell and Leonard gowns during Commencement, the union will set up "informational picket lines."

The protest is part of a nation-wide boycott that ILGWU officials have organized since workers at Cotrell and Leonard went out on strike last August. The company, the workers claimed, was preventing them from organizing. The workers, the company claimed, were being manipulated by the ILGWU, which was trying to break into a traditionally non-union shop. By the time noise of the labor squabble had drifted down to Cambridge this spring, the workers had already been on strike for more than six months, union officials were busy trying to coordinate boycotts at 20 universities, and company officials were lamenting all the bad press they were receiving.

Harvard, which ILGWU officials said was one of Cotrell and Leonard's two largest customers (a successful boycott, they claimed, depended largely upon Harvard's participation) quickly became embroiled in the dispute. Faculty and alumni representatives announced that they would remain neutral, while student organizations rallied to support the boycott and called on the Coop to offer an alternate gown. Yet somewhere in the midst of all the furor of organizing pickets and calling for boycotts, the essential question lay buried. Was the ILGWU justified in seeking a total boycott of the rather obscure factory in upstate New York?

FOR EVERY CHARGE that the union filed against Cotrell and Leonard, there was an apparent company explanation. The basic charge at the core of the entire disputes, that the company was not permitting its workers to unionize, was completely untrue, company officials said. The officers of Cotrell and Leonard insisted that they had long-since agreed to hold a secret-ballot election that would reveal the true sentiment among employees. Attorneys for the company also claimed that all the charges filed last fall through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had already been settled. The charges included:

* interrogation of employees concerning union activities;

* threats to fire striking workers;

* threats not to hire workers who supported the union;

* threats to close the factory if employees voted to unionize; and

* promises of wage increases if employees chose not to unionize.

Company officials asserted that they had reached the NLRB settlement by posting around the factory notices advising workers of their rights. Finally, both Anthony J. Harden, vice president and general manager of the company, and John Scagnelli, a Cotrell and Leonard attorney, accused the ILGWU of refusing to agree to a secret-ballot election, thus delaying the vote that would allow workers to unionize.

Either Cotrell and Leonard officials are employing empty rhetorical tactics to deceive observers, or they are simply ignorant of the law, since none of their rationalizations appears to have any legitimate legal basis. The NLRB says the posting of notices in the shop does not constitute any kind of legal restitution. The rationale behind the ILGWU's rejection of the company's offer to hold a secret-ballot election lies in a Supreme Court ruling that such elections are not usually accurate indicators of employee sentiment during a labor dispute. NLRB policy also prevents elections of any kind from being held in the midst of a labor dispute, since workers are then often much more susceptible to coercion and manipulation. And, if Harden truly believes that the company is prepared to vote, why is it that the ILGWU is the only party that has formally asked the NLRB to hold an election?

Yet even when presented with the NLRB's election policy, Harden maintains that "that's a lot of hogwash." Apparently, Cotrell and Leonard chooses to interpret the law in its own fashion. Another incident is typical of the manner in which Cotrell and Leonard has managed--or mismanaged--the entire dispute: The working employees of the company, organized under Harden's personal secretary, began counter-picketting against the striking workers in early March. Although Harden and his secretary, June McPhail, insist company officials had nothing to do with the counter-activity, the NLRB found this development sufficient grounds for yet another charge. That company officials should be so myopic as to let their workers engage in actions that will inevitably lead to further legal complications is either hopelessly pathetic or strong evidence that those in charge of Cotrell and Leonard's operation precipitated the dispute. In either case, whether out of justice or mercy, the situation merits NLRB intervention, which will culminate in a hearing sometime this summer. If the NLRB decides in favor of the unionizers, tomorrow's protest--quiet though it may be--may prove one of Harvard's most effective.