Sitting cross-legged with a steaming mug of tea tucked between her hands, Kirin Gupta ’16 has her body set in a picture of relaxation. Her face, with eyes locked and mouth stuck in a tight-lipped smile, betrays the seriousness of the topic. She answers questions candidly but with authority, her voice cracking when she talks about the problems she perceives as a member of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM).
“I think the most important thing that a Harvard student or anyone of this kind of educational and sociopolitical privilege can do is give a voice to people who are systematically disenfranchised by the very system from which they have benefited,” Gupta says. She hesitates a second and then clarifies, “I mean disenfranchised in the sense of not having a say in their negotiations and not having a real say in the issues that pertain to their own lives.”
When asked about how SLAM gets workers to come out to their protests, Gupta interrupts.
“I take offense to that question,” she says. “I don’t think of it as them at our protests. I think of it as us at their protests.”
SLAM is the most prominent labor group on campus. It coordinates with employees and activists to support workers’ rights and, most recently, it has organized protests regarding the delayed contract negotiations between the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) and the University, as well as the alleged workplace sexual assault of Johany Pilar, a mailroom worker who claimed coworkers brutally forced themselves upon her.
HUCTW is a large and active union on campus, consisting of over 4,000 members who are mostly librarians, faculty assistants, and other administrative employees. Contract negotiations began in April and have been ongoing ever since. Although the negotiations are closed-door, HUCTW names the primary areas of contention as health care benefits, the collective bargaining rights of Harvard’s employees, and salary increases—at a minimum, HUCTW is looking for raises corresponding with inflation rates.
Members of SLAM emphasized the amount of influence that students wield in the interactions between the University and various unions.
“When students stand with workers it becomes easier for the Harvard community to put pressure on the Harvard administration to negotiate constructively for a fair and just contract,” says Clio Griffin ’15, a member of SLAM. Griffin notes that many students support HUCTW’s efforts, pointing to a petition from a few weeks ago that over 400 students signed in support of HUCTW’s contract negotiations.
Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16, who wrote an editorial in The Crimson detailing the status of HUCTW’s labor negotiations and calling for student aid in the protests, says that student communication with workers should not be limited to only supporting them in their campaign for a new contract.
“The interaction doesn’t have to come through SLAM. It’s a matter of talking to people who work in my house, talking to dining hall workers, treating them like real people and interacting with them,” Blecher-Cohen says. “They kind of ground us in that this is their real world perspective. You definitely don’t have to be in SLAM to seek out that kind of perspective.”
For some students, HUCTW’s contract negotiations can seem like a distant issue, but again and again, members of SLAM emphasize the importance of student involvement and activism in the issue.
“I think a lot of it is a matter of simple outreach. I think a lot of students on campus don’t necessarily know what’s happening with the unions,” Blecher-Cohen says. “It’s incredibly valuable to think of the Harvard community as being beyond students and faculty and thinking of all the people on campus that help it function.”
As a nonprofit institution, Gupta says that Harvard’s labor negotiations are seen in a very different light than other for-profit big businesses. Although the current standoff between Harvard and HUCTW is tense, Gupta cedes that the University has been amiable to student demands in the past.
“Harvard is flexible to an extent,” Gupta says. “But there is a point at which that ends, and that is not the right point today with a lot of what’s going on, especially with HUCTW. Being a nonprofit employer affects your negotiations with workers in what you can claim at the negotiation table. It definitely matters in the sense that a nonprofit employer is expected to have a less antagonistic relationship with its employees.”
According to Brianna J. Suslovic ’16, Harvard’s status as a nonprofit has less of an effect on the negotiations because—although the primary purpose of the university is educational in nature—there is a corporation component to the university.
“It is important to keep in context that these universities in the United States are considered nonprofits but are huge employers and parts of the community that they are within,” Suslovic says. “Regardless of the fact that Harvard is a nonprofit, there is still money flowing and that takes precedence for me over the fact that it is a nonprofit organization. I think within the University there is a lot of redistribution of money, and I think regardless, when money and labor are involved, it’s important to keep fair treatment, stuff like fair hours and pay, at the forefront of negotiations.”
Asked about why he fights for labor rights, Blecher-Cohen takes a second to think. Pursing his lips, Blecher-Cohen is briefly at a lost for words. After composing his thoughts, Blecher-Cohen relaxes and begins to speak.
“These worker negotiations don’t exist in a vacuum and the status of these workers affects them every day,” Blecher-Cohen says. “Harvard is first and foremost a school and the fact that the students can demonstrate that they care about these issues and that they support the workers has a very profound effect. As the biggest consumer of the school, if students can voice that they have an interest in the negotiations then that can spur a lot of dialogue.”