Harvard and Union Bring in Mediators as Deadline Approaches

With contract negotiations between Harvard and its largest union set to run past the Sept. 30 deadline, the parties have collectively brought in a small team of experienced mediators to aid in the ongoing talks.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economics professor, and Robert B. McKersie, professor emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, both served as mediators in the lengthy Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers contract renegotiations of 2013. They have returned to aid in the current negotiations.

A Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Worker event in 2013.

“Once we start really getting into the issues and not being on the same page, that’s when the mediators are most helpful,” said Carrie E. Barbash, a HUCTW organizer.

A main function of the mediators, Barbash and HUCTW director Bill Jaeger said, is to prevent procedural debates—disputes over the agenda, order, and formal rules of the negotiations—from overshadowing their policy contents.

“It can be very helpful as the process gets more intense to have someone to turn to to get those quick simple answers,” Jaeger said.

The mediators, who participated in the informal policy brainstorming sessions HUCTW and University representatives held with Harvard faculty experts last spring, will also be on hand to aid both sides in coming to consensus on issues like health care and salaries, which have been contentious in the past.

“We both sometimes get weighed down in past baggage that is not as productive,” Barbash said. “The mediators can help us with which parts of the baggage are important, and which parts are just baggage.”

Health care remains one of the most prominent and contentious issues of the ongoing talks, especially as the protracted negotiations have likely pushed any changes to health care plans into the enrollment period for 2017, according to Barbash.

“These health care issues are heavily politicized by events of the last year,” said Jaeger. “There are some differences of perspective about managing the cost of the health care and there are some strong feelings about that, so [there is] definitely a feeling at this point that it’s not going to be easy to work all of that out and settle on one strategy, one design, one set of policies in the healthcare area that works for HUCTW and is agreeable to the University.”

In an email to HUCTW’s more than 4,600 constituents, union leaders wrote that the University’s proposed health care plan for union members mirrors the controversial one Harvard proposed for non-union faculty and staff for 2015, including increased copayments and deductibles.

“HUCTW leaders have expressed deep concerns about exposing employees to the risk of substantial new and unpredictable out-of-pocket costs,” HUCTW leaders wrote in the email.

Harvard’s executive vice president, Katie N. Lapp, acknowledged the continued health care debate in a statement.

“Important issues, such as health care, remain to be resolved, and the University remains committed to working with the HUCTW to settle outstanding concerns,” Lapp wrote. “The University’s goal is to work out all outstanding issues timely and equitably, and to reach a new contract that advances the interests of the union and the university’s broader mission.”

Jaeger said the passage of Wednesday’s deadline will mark the “transition from an ordinary negotiation to one that’s more challenging.” Still, he said HUCTW leaders are confident that a temporary agreement extending the current policies and programs offered in the expiring contract will be put in place while the negotiations continue, a sentiment echoed in Lapp’s statement.

“As in the past, while negotiations continue, the terms of the current contract remain in full force and effect, providing HUCTW members competitive wages and benefits,” Lapp said.

—Staff writer Emma K. Talkoff can be reached at emmatalkoff@college.harvard.edu.

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