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.