When Kristine Rondeau first walked into a small Tremont St. labor union office 10 years ago, she was optimistic.
Rondeau, at the time a 23-year-old research assistant at the Medical School, was confident that a clerical and technical union at Harvard would soon be formed. Rondeau is still waiting.
The union--District 65, which is now part of the United Auto Workers (UAW)--had been organizing clerical and technical employees in the Harvard Medical Area since 1974. But, failed union elections, Harvard anti-union campaigns, and high job turnover rates have blocked the establishment of a University clerical and technical union.
After 11 years of organizing, Harvard's 3600 clerical and technical workers--80 percent women--are still without a union. Currently, administrators and faculty are the only other University employees still without a union.
In the past, the union has faced most of its obstacles from the University. Recently, however, internal disputes have hampered the organization's drive.
The latest chapter in the 10-year effort unfolded over the last three weeks. The organizers of the union who have been employed by the UAW, severed their ties with the national union.
The seven-member paid staff, who claimed they were fired by the UAW when leadership split over organizing strategies, have in the meantime formed a new union, called the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.
The UAW, however, said the local staff left their positions for no obvious reason.
The split came primarily over disagreements over the grass roots organizing stlye favored by Rondeau as opposed to a more rapid proceedure favored by the UAW. Rondeau said her staff had attempted to build an internal organization within Harvard and to work on a "personal basis with Harvard employees." She argued that the UAW was pushing too hard and had not established a solid local foundation.
Back to the Future
Despite the split, both the UAW and the new organization say they will continue activities and both deny they are in competition with eachother. Student activists who will begin meetings this fall to inform students about the union drive have pledged support for the new union.
"I guess I'm having trouble dealing with the concept of two unions," says Barbara D. Rahke, an organizer for the UAW. Rahke, who helped organize Boston University clerical and technical employees into a union that was ratified in 1978, however, says the new union will face problems. For example, the newly formed Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers will not have the funding, collective bargaining expertise and prestige of the UAW behind them, says Rahke.
"By being part of the larger organization you get so much from it. When you say 'UAW', your employer knows what that's all about," says Rahke.
Those on the staff of the new union say they have continued regular meetings with workers, but add that they have not seen UAW organizers. Rahke says the UAW staff is still settling into its Church St. office and that workers have called to learn more about the new staff.
Rondeau says one of the unions will bow out within the next few months. In the meantime, whoever does keep the 11-year-old ball rolling will still have to face the longer standing University opposition.
Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 says the University still opposes a secretary and technician union and that Harvard will "continue to improve...programs and policies and make Harvard a better place to work."
The recent leadership split is not the first obstacle organizers have faced.
In January 1976, the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) director denied District 65's request for recognition as an acceptable bargaining unit for the 800 Medical Area clerical and technical employees. The decision upheld Harvard's contention that the employees should seek a University-wide clerical union. It also made a formal union election impossible.
The NLRB, however, a year later overturned in a 3-2 vote its January 1976 decision allowing District 65 to hold an election among Medical Area workers.
When the union came to a vote in July 1977 the 848 Medical Area workers voted against District 65 representing them at the bargaining table. The final votes showed 436 workers opposed the union, 346 for District 65, and 66 contested ballots. Before the election, Harvard led an extensive campaign against District 65 using meetings and leaflets to inform the workers of its reasons for opposing the union.
The for/against margin slimmed in a second NLRB election in 1981, but Medical Area workers still oppossed the UAW, 390-328. Organizers filed a complaint with the NLRB charging that Harvard unfairly influenced the election by threatening workers' jobs before ballots were cast.
In August that year, an NLRB hearing officer ruled that a new vote be taken. But NLRB Regional Director Robert W. Fuchs overruled that decision in November. Litigation over the legitimacy of the election continued throughout 1982 until the federal branch of the NLRB made the final ruling that the 1981 election was conducted fairly.
In a move that substantially changed UAW organizing tactics, the NLRB ruled in April 1984 that the Medical Area secretaries and technicians did not constitute a bargaining unit separate from other University clerical and technical workers.
Union organizers said the board ruling resulted from the pro-management shift the NLRB has taken since President Reagan took office in 1981. That decision reversed an earlier board decision and meant the UAW had to expand its drive beyond the Med School organizing all University clerical and technical workers.
The UAW staff moved their offices from Kenmore Square to Central Square. For the last year-and-a-half, Rondeau and her seven-member staff have held lunchtime meetings with workers, formed a small choral group and put on a musical.
All but one of the local UAW organizers split to form the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. "We are pretty much back to business as usual," says former UAW organizer Martha Robb.
Despite the internal and external diputes, Rondeau remains a "professional optiminst," she says.
"I don't see the organizing drive as a long struggle. I see it as a process of getting a lot of problems solved. There is never a feeling of pounding your head against the wall," she adds.