Former Rep. Urges Guards to Organize

Unnamed photo
Joseph K. Lee

Former Congressman David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat, backed the unionization of Harvard’s security guards at the Student Labor Action Movement’s "Silencing Voices" forum yesterday in Emerson Hall.

A former House Democratic leader urged Harvard security guards to unionize using tactics that proved successful at the University of Miami, as labor organizers and student activists readied for what could be the next big battle over workers’ rights here.

David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat who was the House minority whip prior to his 2003 retirement, told a crowd of about 40 people in Emerson Hall last night that Harvard security workers are locked in a “struggle for dignity and respect.”

Five years after students occupied Mass. Hall to advocate for a “living wage” for workers, and just months after the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) mobilized on behalf of dining hall workers, activists are turning their attention towards the security guards, who are among the only workers on campus without a union.

SLAM is buoyed by two successful recent campaigns—one to secure a wage hike for dining hall workers this past spring, and a second to reinstate William James Hall janitor Saintely Paul, who said he had been fired for fainting on the job.

The example of the University of Miami, where janitors and a subcontractor reached an agreement on union representation this past May, provides a potential prototype for a Harvard campaign.

Guards at Harvard are likewise employed by a subcontractor, AlliedBarton Security Services.

Bonior, now the chair of the labor research and advocacy group American Rights at Work, is urging AlliedBarton employees to organize through a “card check” campaign. Under that approach, employers are allowed, but not required, to recognize unions once a majority of workers signs authorization forms. These “card checks” allow organizers to avoid holding elections through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—which Bonior blasted as “fraudulent, unfair, and unjust.” He warned that NLRB elections can be held up for years in appeals.

At last night’s meeting, security guard Najeeb Hussain said he started working at Harvard Law School three years ago, earning about $10 an hour. He said he puts in 80 to 90 hours a week for Allied Security to provide for his five children.

“Everyone else in the university is unionized. Why not us?” Hussain said.

“Job security is absolutely zero here,” he said.

AlliedBarton officials could not be reached for comment late last night.

Hussain and his co-workers received emotional support last night from Clara Vargas, a janitor at the University of Miami who described her 17-day “water-only” hunger strike before her union and the school’s subcontractor reached a deal.

Speaking in Spanish, she said, “No se desanimen”—don’t be discouraged.

The workers also enjoyed backing from a host of campus organizations. The Black Men’s Forum, College Democrats, Harvard Hillel, Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group, Harvard Initiative for Peace & Justice, South Asian Association, and Radcliffe Union of Students also sponsored the event, according to SLAM leaders.