On January 19, Harvard University Library Executive Director Helen Shenton told stunned Harvard Library staff that their numbers were to shrink. She announced that the cuts would be accomplished by July, through voluntary and involuntary means. Officials would rewrite some job descriptions and eliminate other jobs completely, and staffers would have to apply for a smaller number of reconfigured positions.
In the wake of media attention to widely shared tweets about Shenton’s disclosures, a University spokesperson tried to downplay the anxieties of employees. Despite such efforts, Shenton’s remarks are sparking a new wave of worker-led protests on the Harvard campus.
When the University’s clerical staffers last faced mass layoffs in 2008, their Harvard No Layoffs Campaign drew the attention of national and international press. In collaboration with Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement, rank-and-filers in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers joined forces with concerned local residents, faculty, non-union workers and members of other campus unions also hit hard by job losses. The coalition organized a sustained wave of demonstrations, which featured picketers blocking traffic in Harvard Square, as well as multiple actions during the University’s lavish Commencement exercises. Today, activists will meet to plan a revival of the Harvard No Layoffs Campaign.
During its last wave of mass layoffs, Harvard maintained, unpersuasively, that a drop in its huge endowment made job losses inevitable. After a 21.4 percent jump in the endowment during the last fiscal year, to $32 billion, Harvard cannot possibly make any such claims today. Union activists believe the University’s plans to cut costs come at the expense of local communities. In a particularly ominous development, 15 out of 22 employees at Harvard Health Publications learned on January 11 that they would lose their jobs in March. The devastated staffers of HHP must wonder how they will find new positions in the current bleak economy. As of last week, library workers must wonder the same thing.
However, since 2008, the ground has shifted. The Occupy Wall Street movement has pointed a glaring spotlight at social inequalities, the concentration of wealth, and widespread unemployment. Harvard’s workers have actively participated in Occupy Boston and Occupy Harvard. Important links have been built, and potentially powerful networks have risen up. Employees who stayed on the sidelines of past years’ pickets now boldly advocate direct action to fight the planned cuts. No Layoffs campaigners know they will have many more allies this time around.
They will also have student support. SLAM has supported Harvard’s workers for years. The pro-labor students in SLAM went on a hunger strike in 2007 to press for a fair contract for security officers. Its precursor, the Progressive Student Labor Movement, occupied Massachusetts Hall in 2001, demanding a living wage for all who worked at the University. SLAM’s current incarnation, as vibrant as ever, plays a vital auxiliary role in campus labor struggles. As recently as December, scores of workers and SLAM members picketed for over an hour in the cold for Marvin Byrd. Byrd, a 61 year old, partially-disabled employee in Harvard University Mail Services, had his weekly hours cut and was compelled to work a mandatory six-day week, alone of all his co-workers. SLAM’s participation on Byrd’s behalf helped make the action one of the largest worker-led pickets for an individual Harvard employee in recent memory. If hundreds of library workers face the total loss of their livelihoods, they can expect a proportionate response from the students who have stood with them for so many years in their struggle for better working conditions.
Meanwhile, library workers continue to perform their duties, knowing that another year of job losses would certainly hurt scholarship on campus. More automation, increased outsourcing to non-Harvard vendors, and further erosion of institutional memory will throw countless roadblocks in the way of the students, faculty and researchers who use Harvard’s libraries. Harvard’s brand will suffer along with workplace morale. The precious scholarly resources amassed by Harvard, including online databases, will grow less accessible. These unnecessary consequences are a source of great frustration to dedicated employees. If Shenton’s destructive plans go forward, campus workers will soon have myriad opportunities to vent that frustration in public.
Geoff Carens is a Union Representative in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and a member of the No Layoffs Campaign. He is a Library Assistant at Lamont Library.