Unsticking Negotiations

A few weeks ago, more than one thousand students, faculty, staff, and community allies stood out in support of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the largest labor union on campus. HUCTW represents library staff, receptionists, and research assistants—workers on whom students depend daily for full and consistent access to University resources. These employees have been engaged in an ongoing negotiations process drawn out since April, and have been working without a contract since July 1.

The strong demonstration of support the union received at its Sept. 27 stand-outs should motivate HUCTW to stay strong in its commitment to the workers it represents, and to actively reach out to the broader Harvard community for support during continued negotiations with the University. Without the work of thousands of HUCTW members, the University would effectively shut down; these employees keep Harvard functioning on a daily basis and are a valuable resource worth investing in by the University.

The Crimson Staff urged Harvard to grant meaningful wage raises as part of a new deal with HUCTW, and to expedite the broader process of contract negotiation. According to data from the Harvard Management Company, the University’s endowment has held steady in the gains it has made in the past two years, far above levels seen during the recession. Workers should benefit from Harvard’s increased economic stability in the form of wage increases, of the kind HUCTW members voted to forgo during their last round of contract negotiations in 2010 due to claims of financial uncertainty from the University. Accompanying Harvard’s return to more solid financial footing should not just be a restoration of annual wage increases above the rate of inflation, but also a University commitment to insulating workers’ jobs from economic fluctuation.

After the financial crisis in 2008, Harvard laid off hundreds of clerical workers in an attempt to cut costs. Just last spring, the Harvard Library suggested that its staff would be significantly smaller; 65 workers took an early retirement package offered by the University and left their jobs, while six more were eventually laid off. Moving forward, the immediate response to a change in University finances or to an uncertain economic situation should not simply be to hold workers’ feet to the fire with the threat of mass layoffs. Harvard should signal its commitment to the livelihoods of its employees by strengthening efforts to invest in and develop its human capital just as carefully as it does its financial resources. In conversations about fair jobs, wage increases and job security go hand in hand; not only should the University agree to wage increases appropriate to its improved financial health, but should also include a no-layoffs clause in the eventual negotiated contract.

While the conversation about wage increases is directly relevant to current HUCTW goals (and has dominated the public focus of both the Crimson editorial page and the University itself), the issues at play in the ongoing contract negotiations are much broader.

Harvard’s public statement on the negotiations focused exclusively on wage increases while not acknowledging other issues at stake with the new contract which directly impact the daily lives of the 4,600 HUCTW members and their families, as well as retirees. This larger picture of current negotiations includes three major tenets as put forth by the union, which all ought to be included as subjects of public discussion and awareness. It is important to remember that both healthcare coverage and membership in HUCTW’s bargaining unit—in addition to wage increases—are major issues at stake in current negotiations, and are of interest not only to current HUCTW members but also to union retirees and current non-unionized Harvard employees.

After a six-month standstill, it is clear that putting negotiations with the University back on track will require continued action from HUCTW. Coordinating mass public stand-outs is a strong start in terms of campus organizing, but union membership must continue to be mobilized in order to ensure a successful contract is brought back. While employees have been working for three months since the expiration of their previous contract earlier this summer, this is not an unfamiliar situation. In 1992, negotiations between Harvard and the union stretched on for six months after the previous contract expired. To ensure the quick and timely realization of its goals, HUCTW must continue to engage the Harvard community and be willing to expand its action repertoire beyond standing out to more dynamic initiatives.

Last November, Harvard custodial staff, represented by SEIU 615, negotiated a successful contract just as their previous one was about to expire. The janitors, along with students and community allies, staged rallies around campus and voted to authorize a strike if an amenable deal was not reached after a month-long standstill; just hours before the strike would have gone into effect, a new contract was negotiated with the University. That union took home a successful contract, complete with an increase in wages.

Levels of attendance and enthusiasm at HUCTW’s stand-out demonstrations indicate that it has the human resources available to press for a fair contract addressing the priorities of its members. One hopes the University will take notice and respond with offers that grant employees on campus appropriate wages, job security, and benefits commensurate with the value they contribute to campus every day.

Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16 lives in Mower Hall. He is a member of the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement.

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