Job Security?

C. ALEXANDER Guth

An employee with Harvard’s Facilities Maintenace Operations rakes leaves in the Yard.

Peter Skillman had already been fired by Harvard once. It happened halfway through his 30-year tenure as an in-house security guard. Up to that point, he had been happily employed at the Business School working midnights and swing shifts as a patrol officer. In 1989, he was accused of beating up two of his fellow guards, and he was terminated for three months while authorities conducted their

investigation. But his name was quickly cleared with support from the students and faculty he had come to know during his time on the job. According to Skillman, he found advocates in some of Harvard’s biggest names, such as former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who would ask for updates on the “Yard situation” every time the two of them ran into each other.

Upon his exoneration, Skillman came back and put in 15 more years, working as a guard at the Kennedy School of Government and the Widener entrance gate. He remained at Harvard until last May, when the University announced that all guard positions would henceforth be outsourced to Allied-Barton Security—a company that had been steadily cutting into the Harvard guard union’s workforce since the 1970s. The union, which had shrunk from over 120 members to a mere seven by the time the Allied deal was struck last summer, was thus finished.

Although all of the remaining seven guards were promised jobs with the contractor, not a single one of them took the University up on its offer. Thus, the specter of outsourcing had emerged for the first time since 2001, when the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) protested the practice in a series of rallies tied to their Living Wage Campaign. Back then, labor-related buzzwords like “outsourcing” and “parity” were on everyone’s lips, thanks to the vocal, sometimes antagonizing tactics of PSLM.

Today, critics worry that the University is inching backwards from the promises it made following PSLM’s famous 21-day sit-in of Mass. Hall. Administration officials have admitted that the University’s implementation of those recommendations has been more difficult to enforce and monitor than originally hoped, mostly because of the University’s decentralized hiring and firing practices. Back in 2001, PSLM’s main concern was that Harvard was outsourcing work to private contractors—whose low-paid workers were not allowed to unionize—to save money and bypass Harvard’s own unions. Because of alleged “union-busting” on the part of the University, people working for Harvard’s contractors were being shortchanged in wages, benefits and working environments while the University’s own employees enjoyed much better conditions. Outside contractors should be held to the same high standards, the labor activists insisted, and until those standards were properly enforced, Harvard was wrong to support them.

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The living wage effort demanded Harvard use more scrutiny in its oversight of contractors, and when the sit-in ended in May of 2001, University officials began discussing potential reforms with labor specialists and union organizers. Although University President Lawrence H. Summers made no definitive promises, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policy (HCECP)—convened with workers, students and administrators after the sit-in—used strong language against outsourcing to lower-paid workers in its report to the president in January 2002.

The report issued by the HCECP, widely known as the Katz Committee after its chairman, Harvard labor economist Professor Lawrence F. Katz, blamed the use of outside contractors for driving down wages on campus. It stated that “outsourcing should not be used to lower wages and weaken the unions representing Harvard’s employees.” Their recommendations included the Wage and Benefits Parity Policy (WBPP), which requires contractors to pay wages and benefits that are at least equal to those paid to comparably employed unionized Harvard workers.

In principle, the parity policy was put in place to protect inhouse workers from cheap subcontracted labor, but critics claim that Harvard does not know if all the contractors are complying. Members of Harvard’s union community also allege that the University systematically took apart the security union after the sit-in.

Administrators concede that confusion abounds among vendors about what they should be paying their workers and the kind of insurance they are supposed to provide them. But, administrators say, the move to private contractors is about efficiency, not union belligerency. Wages and benefits for Harvard employees are higher than they were before the sit-in and many of the workers employed by contractors are now unionized as well. But questions remain about how the University is monitoring the implementation of the parity policy and what kind of steps they are taking to increase the effectiveness of their oversight.

SECURITY BLANKET

“We were basically forced out of there,” Peter Skillman says of last summer’s Allied deal. “We got up to the police station, and they turned around and said they were giving us a buyout. Our union and [Harvard University Police Department Chief Riley] said we should take it, because this was it. ‘If you don’t take it,’ they said, ‘you’re out of here anyhow.’ But I wanted to finish up my remaining years at Harvard. I’d been there for 30 years, and I don’t know nothing else.”

After a round of in-house guard layoffs two years ago resulted in worker and student protests, James A. LaBua, Deputy Director of the Office of Labor and Employee Relations (OLER), which oversees all labor policy implementation and contract negotiations, said that a mix of in-house guards and contracted guards wasn’t optimal for the security of the University.

“Any major employer would look at this and say there seems to be some merit in unifying all those forces,” LaBua said in June 2003. “We are in the process of looking to unify the existing security guard force.”

The issue of more secure security gained even greater importance with administrators after a pair of sexual assaults last winter was traced to Geremias Cruz Ramos, a Holyoke Center custodial employee hired by Sodexho USA, a private contractor. The arrest quickly led to the current policy that requires security and custodial contractors to perform background checks (CORI) on all new employees. Harvard has had a long-standing policy of performing background checks on its own employees.