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The Warm Cold Heart Of Harvard's Bureaucracy

By Philip Weiss

Michael Brown-Beasley's eyes gleam as he types the letters "FCLTY CLB" into the machine and the luminous green characters flash instantly on the terminal screen. "It's a new program I've been working on," Brown-Beasley chatters. When it is finished you will be able to determine almost anything about the operation of the Faculty Club--"how many kilowatts of electricity, God knows, or how many barrels of oil."

The computer is Datapoint 5500, a "minicomputer" Harvard bought last year, and Brown-Beasley, assistant to the Office of Fiscal Services, is the computer's wet-nurse. There are ten terminals on this end of the third floor of Holyoke Center, he says, and they are so versatile that if you really wanted to, you could wire them up "every ten miles down the trans-Canadian pipeline." Brown-Beasley seems to like this phrase; he says it again before lifting the memory "drive," which looks like a stack of records inside a plastic cylinder, out of the machine and switching it off. He has officiated at several rites in the machine's inception--for instance, he had to build a "click" into the machine, "so the woman knows the keys are responding," he explains as he walks through the payroll division. It is past 5 p.m. now and the desks and offices on the third floor are empty, while Brown-Beasley, a square and compact man with lank hair and a clipped, Anglicized voice, struts cheerfully over the clutch of wires that is the insulated umbilical for the machine. "Many nights I've slept here by these machines," he says.

If the machine works as it should--and this is an important if to Brown-Beasley--then the quiet transformations it will make on work here on the third floor are good ones, he says. His is a futuristic and optimistic managerial attitude that when the machine works, the worker is transformed. "It makes the woman better than she is," he says. "Work becomes more human, not less." The great majority of the clerical workers on the third floor are women, and Brown-Beasley takes a biological view of the effect of the machine: "It means that a lady who's been very nervous--it might be that time of the month--can still type letter-perfect checks every day. A lady doesn't have to worry about her cycles."

For the workers who gave the computer its name, who call it simply "the machine," its advent is not as impressive as it is for management. Leyla Reddy, a clerk, says "at first it was fun because it was something different," and Conceicao A. Peixoto, who works in the payroll office, says that the work became "very interesting" when the computer came in last year. By now, however, the bloom has come off the rose; even though the machine has splintered the time needed to track down an error in the payroll from days to smithereens of seconds, it has lost its charm for Reddy and Peixoto.

It is a mistake, however, to parallel the difference between Brown-Beasley and the young workers Peixoto and Reddy to the relationship of management to the 75 or so clerical workers on the third floor of Holyoke Center. As Brown-Beasley says, "lines are not so clearly drawn." The employees do not all view themselves as a distinct and subordinate class, toiling in tedium for an employer whose interests are not their own. The unpopularity of that view is demonstrated by the difficulty District 65, a clerical and technical workers' union, has had organizing in Cambridge. For the people who work on the third floor, the important distinctions seem to be those between younger and older workers, distinctions based on how close the worker has become to Harvard, how much she or he identifies his or her interest with the University's existence. Although this distinction may reflect Harvard's largess, the advancement an employee makes over time--maybe, too, the dependence that an aging employee develops for her employer--it is still a valid distinction. And this difference among workers illustrates the union's allegations about Harvard's paternalism as an employer.

A good example of an employee's closeness to Harvard is Donna M. Estella, who works in the payroll office ("The payrolls come into us, and we key them right into the machine"). Before the computer came in, recalls Estella, a blond-haired woman of middle height who wears blue overalls to work, work meant "filing, filing, filing." Estella does not mind the computers and she seems to appreciate her bosses, because they are understanding about the pressure of monthly deadlines. Estella says that she doesn't really depend on work to the extent "that I fear that if anything went wrong I wouldn't be able to find anything. But I really do like working," she pauses, "at the machines." She will not sign up with District 65.

Work is clearly different for Estella, who says she gets plenty of recognition on the job, than it is for one temporary worker who is the same age and who says the most interesting part of her job is "when you come across a mistake, a break in the routine." The temporary worker, who like many other employees on the third floor asked to remain unidentified, says that when she first came to Holyoke Center, "I said, My God, people are doing this work and they're into it." She will be leaving soon, she says, then adds, "It's very hard to do this kind of work, where you make no decisions, but I really do think people are happy at their jobs."

***

On the wall in the snack room on the third floor of Holyoke Center are greeting cards from sick employees and a white-index card reminding employees that a woman who broke her hip has her birthday on April 19. In another end of the room, a low-level supervisor with sandy, nondescript looks and saddle shoes is smoking cigarettes, and he is speaking with an older worker. She seems more talkative than he is, but only after the reporter has stopped talking to her supervisor does she feel free to speak. She has been here 13 years and she laments how much work has changed over that time, "just for control purposes." She has dark hair, a pinched face and darkly-lipsticked lips, and she says wistfully, "At one time the place wasn't as large as it is now."

The changes have happened over the years since the Harvard bureaucracy wafted out of Lehman Hall and billowed into Jose Luis Sert's filing cabinet of grey stone across Forbes Plaza. Back in Lehman Hall, recalls R. Jerrold Gibson '51, director of the Office for Fiscal Services, work was a "green eyeshade sort of of thing," copying figures from one sheet of paper to another by hand. Now, when the circulatory system behind Harvard's huge bureaucratic blush thrums more precisely, computeristically, the work is more interesting, Gibson says.

Still, he says, "the thing we're caught in now, is very distinct pressure from two directions." On one hand, management is concerned that jobs should not get too boring, while at the same time it is worried about cutting costs and speeding things up. The machine, Gibson says, has helped on both counts. Joe Billy Wyatt, who as acting director of the Office for Information Technology is supervisor of roughly half the employees on the third floor, agrees that the machine has made work more interesting--taking what used to be a "production line" and consolidating it in the hands of each worker. (The machine has "replaced" about three workers on the floor, Gibson estimates.) Unless efficiency is always considered, Wyatt adds, the University will face a "reasonably severe financial problem."

Because of these concerns, a union spokesman claims that most jobs on the third floor of Holyoke. Center can be taught to a trainee in ten minutes.

One day during lunch in the snack room, four older workers were sitting around a table discussing the growth of the office. "Even the students resent becoming numbers now," one said. Another, who has worked here 14 years, added, "It used to be more like a family, the boss would come out and say hi to everyone." A third worker said that she had never seen her boss, Joe Billy Wyatt. "He runs in and out with a briefcase," the first employee said. The fourteen-year veteran added, "He's a handsome man." "Why didn't you tell me," barked the employee who said she had never seen Wyatt.

***

After the employee with the dark hair and very red lips leaves the snack room, the supervisor with the sandy hair, pastel-blue bellbottoms and the cigarette lighter with a picture of a woman in a negligee remains. He says that he harbors hopes of rising in the Harvard bureaucracy but that he feels no competitive pressure. "We all have to work for a common goal," he says.

The notion that all employees are pursuing a common goal is one that Vassia Joannidi, an organizer for District 65, is trying to discredit. Almost more important to the organizing drive than the gripes with pay-scales and promotion opportunities are the organizers' grievances about less tangible elements of the labor-management relationship. These elements include the common-goal myth and Harvard's paternalism.

Joannidi, who works in accounts Also because of these concerns, when a reporter asked Gibson if he could spend two days interviewing workers at their posts, Gibson suggested that the interviews be conducted in the snack room, so that no working time would be lost. payable on the third floor, uses the term "paternalism" when she talks about Harvard management's claims to represent the interests of the workers. This claim is unfounded, she says, as long as workers are cut out of decision processes. "When you're doing your job, certain responsibilities are taken away from you," she says. "And it's all done with a claim that this is a nonprofit organization, an academic organization with higher aims, that we're all part of this community. Well, we're not part of this community."

After nearly two years of organizing District 65 does not have enough signatures to ask for a National Labor Relations Board election, although Joannidi says its efforts have been relatively successful on the third floor of Holyoke Center. A high turnover rate among younger employees has been particularly nettling to the union, and Joannidi concedes that the union will have to destroy what she says are the "myths" workers hold about a closed shop: time clocks, stricter relationships. But, she adds, "you don't invent reasons for people to join the union--the reasons are there and they're good ones." The process of convincing employees to sign up is, by Joannidi's description, an almost Marxist discovery of alienated self: "The turning point is when, from frustration from your work, you transform this feeling into a more positive feeling of, 'when we get together, we don't need to compete or mistrust each other."'

What the union is up against is the satisfied attitude of workers like Donna Estella who identify their own futures with Harvard's. Older employees all say that they would never join a union and suggest that if employees are dissatisfied they should leave. A couple of older workers boast that they are from "the old school." "The whole attitude of the workers has changed," says one. "It's out of control. We're of the old school that feels the management should control." Some older workers say they would have a different attitude if they were younger. "Pursuing a career, and being a woman, I'd want it," one woman says. Most older workers believe the young supervisor's concept of a common goal and also accept Gibson's concern that, with unionization, the third floor would lose its "flexibility." "Everything would tend to get frozen," Gibson continues, "everything would be codified in a considerably more detailed way than it is now."

An employee who is a graduate of the College and works in student loans says the "team spirit" in his section is a paternalistic creation, and that it will frustrate the District 65 effort. Because the work is "less regimented than other white-collar work," he says, a team spirit flourishes. Or as Brown-Beasley says, "there's an extraordinary amount of intimacy here. One can hear the name Jerry [Jerrold Gibson] on the lips of many people here."

But Brown-Beasley dismisses the word paternalistic. When he gives white roses to an employee who is "in the dumps," when he kisses "half a dozen women at Christmas," Brown-Beasley insists, he is acting from genuine concern. But he recognizes that there is a difference between management and labor. "The women on whose backs this system has been erected--who carry home five and six hundred a month--are aware that there is a difference, and it would be a lie to say that they don't resent that difference."

***

Jerrold Gibson is a very pleasant man whose "pilgrimage" began in the admissions office in the 1960's and took him in 1973 to an open office on the third floor of Holyoke Center as director of the Office of Fiscal Services. Like all other offices in Holyoke Center, his office's windows do not open; some employees say this gives work a sort of hermetic and stuffy feeling. Gibson also has an FM radio that plays softly while he works. So does Brown-Beasley, and he says that all employees on the third floor of Holyoke Center should have the privilege. Music should be "piped in," says Brown-Beasley.

If you tell Vassia Joannidi, the District 65 organizer about this suggestion, she waves her hands vigorously, shaking her head. Harvard employees have "absolutely no input in the every day running of their work," she says, and if management ever pipes in music on the third floor, it will be no different. "They make the decision, they choose the channel, and they play the music," she says.

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