Playing to Lose

NOW that the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) has won its election, a key question to consider is: why did Harvard lose?

The administration could have beaten the union. It barely tried.

Despite the flood of anti-union literature issued by Harvard, despite the anti-union meetings, the administration failed to wield the critical weapons at its command--leaving top officials, supervisors and legal tactics out of the fray.

Both sides kept lists of how each employee would vote. Both urged employees to vote. Both knew the race would be close. But before Harvard lost--by the slimmest of margins--the administration acted as though it knew it was fighting a losing battle.

ANTI-UNION meetings were voluntary and less tension-filled than in previous elections. They were run by head anti-union strategist Anne Taylor and middle-level administrators, instead of top bosses and immediate supervisors who could have more leverage and more vote-swaying power over employees.

In this election, most supervisors stayed quiet. Although it is illegal for them to threaten pro-union workers with the loss of their jobs, supervisors used in other ways could have been the most effective weapon the administration has against unionization. They could have made the workplace pretty unpleasant for co-workers in the weeks preceding the election, bullying them and blaming the union for disrupting previously cozy relations. This tactic has been an effective deterrent to union support in other campaigns and in the last elections at Harvard, when HUCTW organized and lost in the Medical Area in 1979 and 1981.

But this time around, Harvard failed to mobilize its supervisors. Most were unsure about what they could or could not say, opting for silence, rather than troubling with the law. Most supervisors only attended one or two meetings with their superiors about the union, and many came away with nothing but a hands-off attitude. The administration was so cautious about supervisor involvement that it even apologized when a few broke the rules to harrass union backers.

HARVARD also failed to use timing to its advantage. Instead of delaying the election with litigation, which would have drawn out the process until awareness and support faded, the administration conceded on one contested issue and let the election occur within two months after the union filed.

Employee awareness of the key issues peaked this spring; desks were crammed with anti-union pamphlets, and phones jammed with organizers. For the union, heightened dialogue meant added support.

By the time the University finally came out with anti-union mailings and meetings, the workers had been prepped to death by HUCTW about what points the administration would try to get across. The union even disseminated Harvard's union fact book in order to poke holes in it. Employees were skeptical enough to scoff at the University's statistics, or at least challenge its paternalistic preaching in meetings. When Taylor reached out to them with the friendly-employer message, they were already well-versed in the virtues of self-representation.

BUT even so, some workers (including union backers) have no specific qualms. As the union says, it's easier to scare people into voting for the status quo--especially if they are satisfied--than it is to convince them to change it.

This is not to support heavy-handed anti-union campaigns. Far from it. But from the standpoint of a powerful employer who did not want this union around, Harvard ran a tame campaign.

Maybe the low-key way the administration ran its campaign was its most effective strategy. The cartoon-illustrated, user-friendly brochures on the campaign's key issues were the most effective printed way to gain support. They instilled insecurity--questions like, "Would I get a raise?" or "Would I have a voice?" were answered by "Maybe, maybe not." A successful career woman (and mother) was picked to head the anti-union campaign and to appeal to a staff that is 83 percent female.

Nonetheless, even at the height of the anti-union campaign, the union was winning backers, not losing them, according to HUCTW leader Kris Rondeau.

IF Harvard really wanted to put down the campaign it would need more than a few figures and one energetic director. So many disparate figures were tossed around by each side that it was hard enough to understand them, much less compare them.

If the local's parent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was as big a threat as Harvard claimed, then why didn't the administration put its full weight into the campaign and go giant to giant? Harvard's tactics show that it accepted this race as what it really was--the fight of individual workers to be heard and of a scrappy union to represent them.

In the two elections in the Medical Area, the administration had fought bitterly--and won. It energized most supervisors, who viciously challenged their employees' support of the union. It held mandatory meetings with employees, scaring them about losing benefits. Meetings were run by a team of top admistrators, including Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54.

This time around, lawyer Taylor was plucked from her job in the General Counsel's office to go it virtually alone against HUCTW. Sure, she marshalled some lower-level managers to hold anti-union meetings. President Bok even wrote two letters.

But where were the powers that put down the union in the last two elections? Two officials left, maybe to avoid the coming storm. But Steiner, a sharp strategist in the previous anti-union efforts and a formidable opponent, gave up the responsibility. That left Vice President Robert Scott as overseer of union matters. Where was he during the campaign? He had delegated his responsibility to Taylor.

If Bok really didn't want the union, why didn't he come out forcefully against it? Speeches, the press and meetings were all tools at his command, but he spurned them for a mainly behind-the-scenes role.

ONE could argue that Bok's previous power hitters wisely left the campaign to women officials to match the women-run union. But then why didn't they deploy Harvard's top-ranking woman administrator--Vice President Sally Zeckhauser? Her office was stripped of jurisdiction over the union when she took over this fall, leaving the duties with Scott. And why wasn't the army of women supervisors catalyzed into effective opposition?

Probably because many empathized with the union. Child care, pay equity and career advancement are all areas in which Harvard has failed its female work force, both management and labor. The University has failed to recognize and respect women workers, leaving them in middle management and turning to men and outsiders for to posts. A case in point is Ronald Petty, the new personnel director, who oversees the mostly female support staff and its supervisors.

Women have often been forced to pay the price for a number of fallen enterprises. For example, former Board of Overseers President Joan T. Bok '51 took the fall for unethical interference in an alumni ballot; she was actually signing her name to a letter written by President Bok.

The best example of the University's attitude toward its women employees can be found in the heart of the anti-union campaign. Unaided by other top administrators and unauthorized to use more heavy-handed tactics, Taylor fought the union mainly on her own. A valiant effort, but a losing one from the start. She was the fall guy in a battle the University did not let her fight to win. The administration's isolation of Taylor is indicative of its disregard for women--probably reason enough for employees to switch their votes to HUCTW.

AS one labor expert said, "If the administration had wanted to win at all costs, they could have." Maybe the administration is extremely concerned for employee relations after all. But in actions ranging from its willful disregard of student input to its inability to eradicate institutional sexism, the administration has yet to prove concern for anything but self-perpetuation. Maybe having a union with 3400 members to contend with will be enough to loosen the hierarchy's hold on power and spur reform.