There are 35 printers now on strike at Harvard, and they have caused the University no end of grief. So imagine what would happen if Harvard's 4000 office, clerical and technical workers unionized and walked out.
Such a strike would be unlikely, of course, but this spring it started to become a possibility as office and clerical workers at the Med School and in Cambridge began to discuss unionization.
An employees' organizing committee at the Med School is already affiliated with District 65 of Distributive Workers of America, a national office and clerical union, and is trying to form a local from the Med School's 900 office and lab workers. And at least two more informal groups of secretaries in the Faculty, the Law School and the Business School have been discussing unionization in the past few months.
The University will try to stop the Med School group from receiving National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification, contending that the office workers in the Med School do not constitute an appropriate bargaining unit. John B. Butler, director of personnel, says the only "appropriate unit" at Harvard would be a University-wide one.
If the University contests the Med School workers' right to form a union and the workers get 300 signatures on a petition asking the NLRB to hold a union-forming vote, the NLRB will hold a hearing to decide whether the workers can unionize. Although members of the Med School group say they support the unionization drive of the workers in Cambridge, they want to proceed on their own since they are farther advanced in their organizational work.
The motivating force behind the unionization drives is a combination of pay and pride. The average starting salary of a secretary at Harvard, for instance, is between $107 and $38, while the average salary for all Boston secretaries is $152. Secretaries at Harvard complain that it is hard to advance through the University's three-grade secretarial pay scale.
Most of the office and clerical workers at Harvard are women, and the unionization drive is in part an outgrowth of the women's movement. A year ago, for example, the Med School organizing committee was, with much the same membership, the Medical Area Women's Group. "Women have risen in their own self-esteem and are no longer willing to be paid shit wages and treated like garbage," Lynn Demler, a Med School Secretary and organizer, said last month.
For the present, the Med School group is leafletting and distributing petitions outside the Med School, the School of Public Health and the Dental School every morning, and has distributed a batch of buttons that read "we can't eat prestige."
The person behind the unionization drive is Peter Van Delft, general organizer for the Distributive Workers. Van Delft started dealing with the Med School group in the fall, and is trying to organize clerical workers into the Distributive Workers' fledgling college division at the University of Chicago and several Ivy League schools. Van Delft is a veteran unionizer who is too crafty to reveal exactly the extent of his operations, but he has been spending much time lately flying around to various universities.
A secretary in the Physics Department went to one of Van Delft's meetings with the Med School workers this spring and first thought of doing something similar on this side of the river; she has since then conferred with other secretaries throughout the University about it, and says the drive is progressing well, if a little slowly.
Meanwhile, Van Delft is in touch with at least one other group in Cambridge, and possibly more--he won't say exactly whom he has talked to. "Let me beg off on this," he said last month. "It's premature right now."
The situation should be clearer in the fall. It's conceivable, but not likely, that the Med School workers will join the workers in Cambridge voluntarily to form a University-wide union or the University and the NLRB might force them into it. If the Med Schools workers unionize successfully, the feat would undoubtedly spur on the organizing move in Cambridge.
The University has not given any direct indication that it is afraid that the office and clerical workers will unionize and strike. However, every non-union salaried Harvard employee will get a flat $300 annual pay increase July 1, and some workers interpreted the raise, announced late last month, as an attempt to influence them not to unionize.
Harvard officials vehemently denied the charge, maintaining that the rising rate of inflation prompted the raise--which is most likely true. Still, because clerical unionization could have such wide-ranging and potentially shattering effects on the University, it's hard to believe that the Personnel Office isn't doing a lot of thinking of its own about unionization.