Cutbacks to Subcontracted Janitorial Staff Continue

University officials are continuing to cut Harvard's subcontracted janitorial staff despite a string of protests in Cambridge and at the Medical School campus this past spring, according to union organizers.

Acme Pioneer Building Services, which provides roughly 40 cleaners at various locations throughout Harvard's Cambridge campus, is planning on laying off the equivalent of four full-time employees at the Harvard Kennedy School, according to Wayne M. Langley, director of higher education for the Service Employees International Union Local 615. Daniel B. Becker, an SEIU organizer working with Langley, said that while the cuts have not been fully finalized, the reductions were slated to happen on July 1 and some workers may have already been notified.

Becker also said that the union learned on Tuesday morning that 10 workers at Harvard Business School, subcontracted from UGL Unicco, are scheduled to be laid off on July 13. He said that the workers were notified of the cuts on Monday, but that the Union had not been consulted beforehand.

Unicco is also planning on laying off one part-time worker at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study while cutting work hours by 8 percent for the other 12 employees there, Becker said. He emphasized that the union is still engaged in discussions with the subcontractor about the downsizing.

University spokesman Kevin Galvin declined to comment on the latest staff reductions. But Harvard officials have long cited the slumping endowment as a reason to trim compensation costs, which make up roughly half of Harvard's operating budget.

Langley said that the University's decentralized decision-making and budget-planning process have made it difficult for the union to gather concrete information about the reductions. He also warned that similar cuts to subcontracted workers will likely continue through the summer and the next fiscal year.

Earlier this spring, a number of subcontracted janitors were laid off at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Real Estate Services, prompting student protests and even a vigil for the workers. American Cleaning Company laid off 11 employees but then rehired two at HMS, and OneSource laid off seven at properties administered by HRES, Langley said. He added that due to a contract swap and reduction, Unicco also lost two employees at HRES.

While the University does not directly dictate how many workers need to be laid off at the various sites, it has asked subcontractors to cut costs by 30 to 40 percent, which have translated into staff reductions. Langley said that he does not know of any reductions made to Harvard's directly-hired cleaning staff.

Langley said he believes that Harvard has failed to provide adequate and detailed financial information to justify the cuts, and that it is debatable whether the janitorial staff reductions are necessary or effective. As such, he said, "we feel Harvard has the resources not to do any layoffs [and] there's been a choice made here, to punish loyal, hardworking employees and to keep the endowment."

Furthermore, he said, when SEIU organizers meet with human resource and academic administrators, Harvard officials are uninformed and fail to communicate openly about their specific cost-cutting needs and goals. He said that the union routinely asks Harvard how many staff will be cut and how the University plans to accomplish the same workload with fewer staff, but each time the response has been unclear and unsatisfactory.

"The University says they're willing to meet at any time, but it's an illusion," he said. "Then they ask, 'What do we mean?' I say, 'They don't answer the questions.' There's been this cone of silence over the whole problem."

John DeLuca, president of Acme Pioneer, declined to comment on the discussions with Harvard. But he emphasized that Acme is a service company dedicated to meeting its customers' needs, and he noted that beyond ensuring that the cuts are made according to seniority, the Union has little real say in the cost-cutting process.

"If Harvard says we're going to cut these services, it's what you do," DeLuca said. "[The union] has nothing to say about the cuts. If you're running a business and you want to cut somebody, you don't have to ask the union's permission. That's the way America runs."

Representatives from Unicco could not be reached for comment on the layoffs.

Langley said he is concerned that there is a "passivity" in the Harvard community about the recent University-wide staff layoffs, as well as the janitorial cuts. But he insisted that "despite what people say, [the cuts] will have an impact on the academic quality of the institution."

"We continue to insist that there's no need for layoffs at this time, and that's our position," he said. "In prior recessions, if you got laid off, you could find a job, although maybe not the best job...[it's] a whole different ball game now. This is like life or death stuff, and I'm being completely honest. We see the consequences of people losing houses and healthcare when they can't find work, and we've seen this in our own union."

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.