After tense negotiations, Harvard and its largest employee union have reached a tentative settlement on a three-year long contract that comes nearly four months past the expiration of their previous agreement.
The new contract—which is pending vote by members of the organization, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers—provides union employees new health plan features and a new premium contribution tier for individuals earning less than $55,000, according to HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger. The settlement will also provide employees in the union with annual pay increases, an element of their previous 2013 contract with Harvard, which ended on Sept. 30. Pay increases are scheduled for Oct. of 2016 and 2017, and union members will receive retroactive pay increases for 2015.
The union will circulate full details about a new health plan and the tentative changes to HUCTW’s contract to members this week, according to Carrie Barbash, a union organizer for HUCTW.
The prolonged round of contract negotiations—which began last spring—has been contentious, requiring dozens of meetings between Harvard and Union representatives, as well as outside mediators once it became clear discussions would extend past the expiration of the previous contract. In mid-December, Jaeger called the back and forth “very frustrating.” Negotiations for the previous contract, which settled in 2013, lasted the longest time span in the union’s history.
Barbash and Jaeger said HUCTW compromised the most on health benefits, a central topic of the negotiations.
The new HUCTW contract moderately expands patient copayments instead of establishing deductibles, Jaeger said. Also new in the contract is the development of a premium tier for union employees earning less than $55,000 a year as their full time salary. Under the new premium tier, almost 40 percent of HUCTW union members will pay $400 less in annual premiums, Jaeger said.
The contract agreement comes more than a year after Harvard announced a controversial health care benefits package for non-union faculty and staff members in fall of 2014. Professors criticized the changes for the introduction of copayments and deductibles for non-routine health appointments, arguing that the plans would disproportionately burden junior faculty members and faculty members with families. Last fall, Harvard added additional health benefits plans for non-union employees.
In addition to reducing healthcare costs, HUCTW and Harvard established a round of salary increases, which Barbash praised in light of the rising cost of living in the Boston area.
“Our goal is to make sure that people who come in and work hard and use their skills at Harvard everyday are moving forward ahead of the inflation rate,” Jaeger said.
Barbash said decreases in affordable housing—a major topic in the recent Cambridge City Council election and a metric she said is not reflected in the local inflation rate—featured prominently in wage increase negotiations.
“People have to move further away,” Barbash said. “If they want to buy [houses], they often wind up living further away. If they rent, they live closer.”
Jaeger estimated that a majority of HUCTW members rent homes, and that HUCTW union members are making “really hard trade offs” between commuting times and rising housing costs.
HUCTW members are expected to put the new contract up for vote on Feb. 25. A simple majority of union members present for the vote is required to ratify the new agreement. Jaeger said he is optimistic that HUCTW will vote in favor of the contract.
“My best guess is that it’s going to be a pretty good turnout and a pretty positive ‘yes’ vote on the 25th, but that's for the members of the union to say,” Jaeger said.
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.