For many months, Harvard University and the largest union on campus have been engaged in as-of-yet unresolved negotiations over a new employment contract.
The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents more than 4,600 non-faculty Harvard workers, has called for wage increases above a standard rise to match inflation. It is unfortunate that these negotiations have taken so long, which have left union members working without a contract for over two months. Clearly, the latter are eager to settle a new contract soon, as evidenced by the more than 1,000 HUCTW members and their supporters who demonstrated last Thursday. Harvard and HUCTW should cut a deal as soon as possible, ending economic uncertainty and potential negative ramifications for all parties involved.
Naturally, bargaining and compromise constitute an important part of any contract negotiation, and both Harvard and its employees should be willing to make concessions in order to settle the contract in a reasonable time. However, Harvard should take advantage of its comparatively sound financial standing and be willing to hand meaningful wage raises to its workers.
Harvard has a history of good labor policies, and this latest contract ought to be no exception. A factsheet released by HUCTW notes that from 2002 to 2009, “union members’ pay grew at about 1.5 percentage points more than price inflation each year on average,” totaling a wage increase of between 4.3 and 5.3 percent per year. In 2010 and 2011, the union agreed to accept a lower pay raise in order to help the university through difficult financial times as it struggled to recover from the hit taken to its endowment in the economic crisis.
Last week, Harvard released a statement arguing that the administration had already offered good terms to HUCTW, pointing out that Harvard already offers its employees a very strong compensation package. The statement also argued that the University is still facing financial uncertainty, citing the fact that Harvard’s endowment recently saw a 0.05 percent drop in its overall investments.
While Harvard is correct to be cautious on major spending increases at a time of enduring economic insecurity, it must also take into account the broader implications of a weak economy. An uncertain macroeconomic outlook and continuingly high unemployment rates have created a very tough labor market in the U.S. While small employers can be hit hard by thinning profit margins and are simply unable to pay their staff more or avoid layoffs in times of recession, this is plainly not true for Harvard, which boats the world’s largest university endowment to tide it through in uncertain times.
Harvard should consider its own fortunate position amid a sea of unemployment and falling profits, as well as the financial condition of its workers and their families, and grant at least modest wage rises to its workers above a 2 percent rate of inflation.
Harvard’s endowment currently sits at $30.7 billion, a figure that is near pre-recession highs. Last year, as workers settled for limited wage increases, the endowment grew nearly 20 percent. As a non-profit, Harvard University possesses the advantage of not having to prioritize turning huge profits every year. The University’s current financial situation suggests that it should have no problem granting at least modest wage raises to the employees who are so essential to its academic mission. Indeed, Harvard could take its lead from other universities in the area: the contract tentatively settled yesterday that governs wages and benefits for 14,000 custodians around New England—including workers at other universities in Boston and Cambridge—just granted janitors a wage increase that averages over 4 percent per year.
Harvard’s primary duty is to serve as an effective educational establishment. Yet, Harvard also has a history of considering its role in society more broadly. Our University must considering how it can act in a way that is socially responsible, looking out for members of its community, whether residents of Allston or Harvard workers. This can include striving to offer its employees better pay and benefits than its peers do.
HUCTW members are hardworking and knowledgeable employees who assist the wider Harvard community in valuable ways everyday. As students, we depend on the work of library workers, House administrators, department staff, and other HUCTW members every day. Students should be vocal in their support of these workers in their contract negotiations.
As in any negotiation, both sides will have to cut a deal in some form. There is more to a union contract than wage raises, and Harvard and HUCTW will also have to bargain about healthcare costs, which members are counted as part of the bargaining unit, and other topics. We hope that Harvard is willing to bend a little and offer decent wage rises to HUCTW—and hope that the contract is settled soon.