Custodial Staff May Strike When Contract Expires

SEIU

Protesters hold signs at a rally in support of Harvard custodians, who are renegotiating their contract with the University.

Custodial workers have threatened to strike if they cannot reach an agreement with the University by 12 a.m. Wednesday morning, when the custodial contract expires. Their threat to strike was followed by a rally around the outside of Harvard Yard on Saturday afternoon, during which custodians and union members chanted and held up signs with such slogans as “Justice for Janitors” and “Yes We Can”.

Custodians and the University enter their final negotiation session on Tuesday, after over a month of contract discussions.

Among the demands of custodians are better health care benefits, total compensation parity between direct employees and contractors, manageable workloads, and more full-time jobs.

Custodians and union leaders said that they hope that an agreement is reached, but are fully prepared to strike to force the University to consider their demands.

“We want to have a contract, but we’re not afraid to strike,” said Nancy Diaz, a Harvard custodian and union organizer.

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She stressed that workers will not accept anything less than a “fair” contract.

University spokesperson Kevin Galvin, pointed out that Harvard custodial contracts are substantially more generous than the industry standard.

“The custodians have seen a 36 percent increase in their hourly wages since 2005, and the University’s already pays more to cover their healthcare benefits than many other institutions,” Galvin wrote in an email statement.

Galvin also noted the broad coverage of the University’s healthcare plan.

“The University [also] grants eligibility for health care coverage to custodians who work as few as 16 hours per week,” Galvin said.

According to Diaz, one of the primary issues the contract needs to address is the excessive workload of custodians, who feel that they are given more work than they can complete without skipping breaks and lunches.

“We need to be able to get all our work done and see our families,” Diaz said. “We want justice. The workers are strong and we are not going to give up.”

Wayne M. Langley, director of higher education for SEIU Local 615, the union which represents Harvard custodians, said that another major sticking point in the negotiations is benefits for contracted custodians, such as those hired through private contractors like the Facilities Maintenance Operations.

“Currently, contracted employees do not enjoy the same benefits as direct employees,” Langley said.  “But we want parity for the workers.  We believe there should be no second class citizens at Harvard.”

Specifically, union leaders are seeking contractor access to a tuition assistance program and childcare—perks that direct employees currently enjoy.

Currently, contract workers enjoy the same “core benefits” as direct Harvard employees—including basic health care, wages, and paid time-off—under the Wage and Benefit Parity Policy, instituted by the University in 2002. The University also provides all custodians with access to the University’s Bridge to Learning program and its Literacy Program.

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

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