Rally Protests Labor Shuffle

Fifty turn out at Holyoke Center, including some students

Nearly 50 people rallied outside Holyoke Center on Friday afternoon, demanding that Harvard University rehire four custodians who had been transferred to work for another company.

The rally figured as one of the more vocal labor demonstrations on the campus in several years.

The protesters included Harvard staff, students and union representatives who claimed that the four female Harvard Facilities Maintenance Operations (FMO) employees were “unjustly laid off.”

In December, FMO transferred three of the women to 1033 Mass. Ave., which houses the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Harvard University Police Department. The fourth had been moved to the same address three months ago.

In early January, Harvard contracted the jobs out to University Cleaning Company (UNICCO), a large corporation that provides a wide range of facility services.

According to Harvard’s contract with the union’s local chapter, UNICCO must provide the same salary, benefits and seniority that the women had enjoyed at Harvard.

But Courtney Snegroff, who organized the protest, said that the cleaning company offers smaller pension benefits than Harvard.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a workers’ organization with which the four women are affiliated, filed a grievance with Harvard shortly after the transfer occurred.

“The way that they eliminated us, they could do that to anybody,” said Elsa Guevara, one of the transferred employees.

“I think it’s discrimination because we’ve done what we wanted—we worked hard,” she added.

The protesters marched in a circle in front of Holyoke Center, chanting in Spanish and in English.

Daniel Mejia, who is a custodian at Harvard and a SEIU representative, expressed his objections to the University’s decision to transfer the workers.

“These were forced layoffs in violation to seniority,” he said. “Some people who work for six months, they don’t touch. But people who work for four years, 16 years, they remove.”

Several students decided to join the protesters, including Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, who is a founding member of the Harvard Social Forum and also a Crimson editor.

“We think it’s about time that the University start treating its workers with the respect they deserve,” said Gould-Wartofsky. “Without them, Harvard wouldn’t work at all.”

William Murphy, Harvard’s director of labor and employee relations, is facilitating negotiations between Harvard and SEIU.

“University leaders, local management, and the union leadership are working together to resolve this matter in a way that is fair and appropriate,” he said in an e-mail.

Harvard declined to explain why the workers had been transferred to UNICCO.

One of the transferred employees, Helena Talbot, had been working for Harvard for 16 years.

“I’m doing the same daily things I used to do,” she said. “But I would like to go back to work with Harvard.”

—Staff writer Daniel J.T. Schuker can be reached at dschuker@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.