No Layoffs

Last September, Working Mother magazine named Harvard University one of America’s one hundred best employers for moms who work, citing a commitment to flexible scheduling, the advancement of women within the university and an array of options for child care. Editor-in-Chief Jill Kirschenbaum also claimed that her magazine’s handpicked hundred were continuing to increase benefits for women, despite the flagging economy. So why, in the past year, has Harvard laid off more than 200 clerical workers, an arm of the university’s workforce largely composed of women, and drawn up plans to lay off 180 more? These layoffs expose the Working Mother award as so much smoke and mirrors, grist for a propaganda mill determined to distract the Harvard community while working mothers in our midst are fighting just to keep their jobs. Feminists and anyone concerned about the real status of working mothers at this university have a responsibility to stand up and oppose this hypocrisy.

Truth be told, feminists haven’t always been responsive to the concerns of working-class women. American feminism as a social movement has been located in the white middle class, and the leaders of the feminist mainstream are only starting to think through the ways that race, class and gender intersect to marginalize women of color. Feminism often valorizes women who can take days off from work in order to attend a protest, while effectively ignoring women who cannot be so cavalier about losing a day’s wages. On the other hand, American labor movements from the big national unions down to Harvard’s own Progressive Student Labor Movement have historically been dominated by men, leaving women wondering whether labor activism is a sphere in which they are even welcome. Overlooked by feminists whose objectives are more cultural than economic, overlooked by union organizers who historically downplay gendered issues like sexual harassment and the glass ceiling, working women have been left in the lurch more than once. And more than once, they have taken matters into their own hands.

Back in 1988, after weathering 17 years of opposition from Harvard, a group of activists drawn from the University’s clerical and technical support staff finally succeeded in forming a union. Despite a climate of intimidation and a year-long legal challenge brought by Harvard, clerical and technical workers—numbering 83% women at the time—linked up with a national parent union and became AFSCME Local 3650, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). HUCTW proceeded to negotiate a contract with Harvard with provisions for women’s pay equity, child care and parental leave as its cornerstones.

All of this resembles a fairy-tale version of grass-roots union organizing, with the big, bad Harvard Corporation put in its place and all the working mothers living happily ever after. But the reality isn’t quite so storybook. HUCTW workers hoped that the initial contract they signed would include a commitment from Harvard to build a new, low-cost day-care center for the children of employees. Twelve years later, there’s still no day care center, and most working mothers agree that federally subsidized child-care vouchers and a union-sponsored “scholarship fund” still do not cover the high cost of private day care in the Boston area. Meanwhile, dental hygienists in HUCTW are being forced to give up their afternoon flex time and work 9-5 every weekday, leaving their kids home alone for hours. Maybe Harvard’s Office of Human Resources forgot to bubble in these sections of the Working Mother questionnaire. Indeed, they must have skipped the whole page about employment security. For even as HUCTW negotiates a new contract with Harvard, the University has announced that by June it will lay off at least 213 clerical and technical workers, including 89 card-carrying members of HUCTW. Most of these layoffs will affect women.

As Harvard’s endowment creeps toward the $20 billion mark, these layoffs are unacceptable. They perpetuate the treatment of women workers as interchangeable, temporary, undervalued and ultimately expendable. After all, the clerical and technical workers who do survive the carnage are asked to do the work of three or four employees, working extra hours on tasks far afield from their job description without any additional compensation. These women are overworked, underpaid, anxious about their job security, and on top of all that Harvard has the gall to ask administrative assistants to stay late after a reception in order to wash the dishes? This climate of disrespect is a feminist issue, and Harvard women should sit up and take notice.

This afternoon, workers and students will come together for a May Day March for Workers’ Rights, gathering at 4 p.m. outside the Holyoke Center to publicly decry the HUCTW layoffs and to address a host of other workers’ issues. Feminists, and anyone concerned about women’s rights at this University, should do everything they can to be in attendance. Their presence will affirm that at the end of the day, the structures of power and privilege that hinder gender equality are the same ones that hold workers down. The world’s richest university and the object of Working Mother’s (misguided) approbation owes its women workers more than a pink slip and a girl-power press release.

Amee Chew ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Marcel A.Q. LaFlamme ’04-’05 is a folklore and mythology concentrator in Mather House. Aidan S. Madigan-Curtis ’07 lives in Holworthy Hall. They are members of the Radcliffe Union of Students.