Harvard in the 75th Percentile

It's time for Harvard to respect HUCTW

The Red Line

My concentration is apparently the most satisfying one at Harvard: Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality is known for its small class sizes, excellent advising, and wonderful community. Even so, I used to feel nervous walking into the WGS office to meet a professor—until I learned that WGS’s program coordinator would always warmly greet me. This semester, each time she walks out of her office to talk to me about my coursework or my life, thte WGS coordinator updates the sign on her office door with a new sticky note: “245 days without a contract!”

Like 4,600 other members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, the WGS coordinator has been working without a wage raise since June 2011. Sadly, Harvard's ongoing negotiations with its clerical workers demonstrate a fundamental lack of respect for the people who make Harvard run. Whether negotiations focused on health care, size of the bargaining unit, or wages, Harvard has sent the signal that respecting workers' time and lives is not a top priority for our university.

Harvard administrators have repeatedly made public statements asserting the fairness of their wage offers. For example, Harvard has noted that “compensation is on average at the 75th percentile.” (Harvard has not cited any sources for this number—and the average worker’s wages were predicted to rise 3 percent last year, making Harvard’s wage raise offer below average.) Harvard Director of Labor Relations Bill Murphy argued that “Our benefits still rank in the top 25 percent, so we think it’s a fair and reasonable offer.” These numbers raise important questions: Does this pool of compensations include all clerical workers, or just those at academic institutions? Does it include only unionized workers, or also workers without union representation? And most importantly, when does Harvard ever think it reasonable just to be in the top 25 percent?

It’s hard to paint a clear picture of the HUCTW negotiations with statistics. The Crimson argued last week that “With an average salary of $50,000 as of 2011 and wage increases consistently beating local inflation, HUCTW workers are paid well above competitive market rates.” This average salary does not include the dozens (if not hundreds) of temporary and casual workers who are not members of the HUCTW bargaining unit but probably should be. Just as importantly, the thousands of workers making below $50,000 per year must be struggling to keep up with Cambridge’s high cost of living, including skyrocketing rents and food prices, let alone supporting their families.

Behind these statistics, dozens of comments on The Crimson’s site point to the difficult reality of many workers’ lives at Harvard. In response to an anonymous comment that “It'd be interesting to see how many Harvard staff have second jobs to help make ends meet,” multiple HUCTW members replied saying that they have not one, but two extra jobs on top of their jobs at Harvard. Other workers wrote about working extra hours of uncompensated time to make up for the work lost by Harvard’s 2009 and 2012 staff cuts. “A Harvard Worker” noted, “We've all been working a lot harder these past few years in the wake of mass layoffs and voluntary retirements. Many of us are now doing jobs that were previously done by two people. Yet our compensation certainly has not doubled over that period.”

It is because of the WGS coordinator and other workers I interact with on a daily basis that I attended HUCTW’s 750-person rally in Memorial Church last week. The dozens of students at the rally demonstrated that students—apparently unlike the University administration—value and respect HUCTW workers.

As I have learned from giving tours for the Admissions Office, Harvard has the largest academic library in the world. The Harvard Library boasts over 16 million volumes, 8 million photographs, and extensive archival material ranging from recordings to maps to letters. Tour guides tell prospective students that researchers and academics come from across the country and globe just to use Harvard’s unparalleled academic resources.

Yet all of these books are worth nothing if Harvard’s libraries are not navigable, or if there is no one to process, catalogue, and preserve archives. Indeed, the workers at Harvard library are also some of the most experienced, knowledgeable, and dedicated library staff around. If Harvard hopes to attract and retain workers who can maintain Harvard Library’s top status, it cannot simply expect its workers to accept higher co-pays and lower wage raises. Harvard doesn't help its image or its library by arguing that it can skimp on workers' wages.

The WGS coordinator carried a sign at the rally noting the hypocrisy of Harvard’s negotiating position. It read: “POP QUIZ: For which of the follow does Harvard think a 75th percentile ranking is sufficient? A) Applicant SAT scores. B) Applicant GPAs. C) Full professor salaries. D) HUCTW salaries.” Harvard is not used to settling for 75th percentile. For better or for worse, HUCTW showed a lot of respect for Harvard when it agreed that workers would take a lower wage increase during the recession to offset the hit Harvard took in the financial crisis. Harvard should show its workers the same respect—and stop arguing that the 75th percentile is acceptable for clerical workers.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.