Janitors Publicly Present Grievances in Protest

About 40 janitors and 10 members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) presented three grievances—late paychecks, unobserved seniority rights, and university interference with union meetings—in a protest outside of the Science Center on Friday.

Three janitors recounted their difficulties to the attendant protestors outside Science Center from 10 to 10:30 Friday morning, according to Aaron Bartley of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 254, which represents Harvard janitors.

The group then proceeded to Holyoke Center, where a five-person delegation of janitors delivered a petition of grievances to James Labua, the acting director of the Office of Employee and Labor Relations.

Bartley said Labua was “cordial” and helpful on the paycheck issue but “noncommittal” on the other issues.

Payday moved from Thursday to Friday as a result of the university’s shift to the PeopleSoft payroll system in October. Late paycheck delivery plagued the new system at its inception, but most of those problems have been since been resolved.

But Bartley pointed out that switching payday had ramifications for over 100 janitors who worked morning shifts and would miss paychecks when they were delivered to facilities late Friday afternoon, leaving for the weekend without their pay.

“For people who have money in the bank, it may seem like not a big deal,” he said. “But for custodians at Harvard, going the weekend without pay became a problem.”

Marilyn D. Touborg, director of communications for Harvard’s Office of Human Resources, said that the university agreed that late paychecks were a legitimate problem.

But Touborg said that the university had been working to correct the problem before the protest and that it had since been resolved.

The custodians’ second grievance—that the university did not uphold seniority rights—concerned full-time openings that should have been offered first to janitors who had worked at Harvard the longest but were instead offered to others, according to Bartley.

“When a new full-time job opens up, it’s a free-for-all,” he said. “There’s a rampant sense at the worksite among custodians that there’s favoritism and inequity in distributing these new full-time jobs.”

Bartley said the many part-time janitors were looking for full-time employment.

But Touborg said that the current seniority provisions of the contract were being honored. The issue is being considered by a joint labor-management committee, she said.

“These are the kinds of issues that are the subjects of ongoing conversations with the Office of Employee and Labor Relations,” Touborg said. “It’s not unusual for there to be these kinds of disagreements occurring.”

The third grievance aired at the protest Friday concerned a union meeting that took place at Jefferson-Lyman Laboratories two weeks ago.

The meeting was illegally broken up, according to Bartley, by a building manager who refused to identify himself, interrupted the meeting, and demanded that the participants leave. The manager then called the police.

Because the building manager is a Harvard employee, Bartley said the union brought its grievance to the Office of Employee and Labor Relations.

“Both under federal labor law and in the contract that we have the right, especially when we’ve given proper notice, to meet with workers at the worksite,” he said.

But Touborg said that miscommunication between the union and university representatives was the real issue.

“In this case, [notification procedures] were not observed, at least in the eyes of the university representative on site, but in the eyes of the union they were observed,” she said. “I think it’s a disagreement about whether they had observed or not observed the standard operation instructions for gaining access to the building.”

PSLM members involved in the protest did not return calls for comment.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at marks@fas.harvard.edu.