After months of frustrating contract negotiations, Harvard's maintenance workers walked off their jobs for three days this March. During the strike, the University and the workers traded harsh recriminations; each accused the other of bad faith. The University threatened disciplinary actions, the workers grew angrier, but financial pressures forced them to return to the job.
Nobody likes a wildcat strike, which often polarizes workers and employees. This kind of strike--when employees walk off the job without prior warning--indicates a dangerous level of discontent on the part of the employees, a feeling that desperate measures are the only recourse.
The walkout occurred during negotiations between the University and the Maintenance Trades Council (MTC), which combines five separate local unions, including Local 40, the carpenters' union where this strike originated. After the MTC contract expired in December, the men worked on the basis of an informal verbal agreement, with the understanding that they would not strike without 30 days' notice.
The University and the unions differ about the reasons for the walkout. University officials persist in terming it completely unjustified, saying that no matter how pressing an issue appears to be, a wildcat strike is not a solution. J. Lawrence Joyce, director of the Department of Buildings and Grounds (B&G), recently said, "There was no issue that warranted that kind of action," and other officials, such as Edward W. Powers, associate general counsel for employee relations, who called the strike an "unfortunate incident," echo Joyce's comments.
University officials believe the strike's origins lay in communications problems between the unions and Harvard. Although union leaders agree that communication gaps exist, they see Harvard's practice of assigning workers to tasks outside their own craft as the key cause of the strike. The most controversial reassignment occurred when carpenters were asked to do painting jobs.
Accusations flew back and forth during the strike. The unions said Harvard had lied to them about the length of the reassignment, while Harvard insisted the only reason for the move was the shortage of carpenter's work. The unions said Harvard was contracting outside, nonunion carpenters to save money. Harvard denied the accusation, saying the University traditionally contracts out the larger construction jobs. Harvard counterattacked and began preparations to sue the union for violation of the 30-day warning clause contained in the agreement between the University and the unions.
University officials now say the union misunderstood the purpose of worker reclassification. "We were trying to provide work for carpenters when there was no work for them to do. It was an effort to avoid laying them off, but they felt we were trying to put people on assignments where they wouldn't use their trade skills developed over a number of years," Joyce said, citing this as an example of the "trouble in communicating" that led to the strike.
James P. Costello, general agent for Local 40, said calling the problem a communication gap is "simplistic." He believes that reclassification is a matter of integrity for the workers. He explained at the time of the strike that maintenance workers such as Harvards B&G employees undergo years of careful training and apprenticeship to learn their particular craft, and resent having to perform jobs they feel they are unsuited for. "The main issue was reclassification, an issue that had to come to a head--and we weren't getting anywhere," Costello said.
Whatever the underlying cause of the strike, it was obvious to both sides that communication had to be improved, and resolution of the issues negotiated.
The University and the MTC did work out a compromise, one which, like all compromises, leaves neither side entirely satisfied. Powers explained the new University policy will be that any worker, regardless of seniority, can be reclassified for a period of time not exceeding three days. If the reclassification job will last longer than three days, the reclassified workers will be selected on the basis of seniority, and if the work will exceed 15 days, the worker will have the choice of asking for a layoff or working on the reassignment. A reclassified worker does not suffer any loss in pay, and if the reclassified job pays more, he will receive the greater salary. "We've defined the parameters of the policy," Powers said.
Costello said the union accepts such a policy, although "it's not totally to our satisfaction." He said, "At least it gives us more control than before."
Monthly meetings between the University and the president of the MTC, beginning this month, are also guaranteed by the agreement. "The meetings are being held to make sure we'll work together to keep the communication gap from opening," Joyce said. Costello said the meetings are "an absolutely good idea. No harm can be forthcoming from dialogue."
Another sign of greater accord between the University and the union is the recent ratification of the long-awaited new contract. While neither side would release exact details of the contract, Powers, Joyce and Costello said it concerned wage increases, health benefits, and about 12 more items, including the definition of reclassification policy. Costello called the wage increase "moderate--neither extremely high nor extremely low, but in accord with the cost of living increase." But the union appears less satisified with the contract than the University, for Costello added, "Feelings were extremely high among the men--as in every contract, everyone wasn't happy." He said, however, the union could not have held out for better terms. "We didn't want to further hurt the membership" by prolonging the negotiations, he added.
In addition to some dissatisfaction with the contract, one unresolved strike issue remains to cloud relations between the union and the University. At the end of the strike, Powers and Joyce announced disciplinary action against the striking workers--a two-day suspension. Costello filed a grievance, delaying enforcement of this penalty. Joyce said he issued striking employees a warning notice and a suspension, but must wait resolution of the grievance for definite action.
Although cordial relations are restored on the surface, there remain some rough edges to smooth out in the relationship between the University and B&G employees. The fact the wildcat strike erupted at all demonstrated a degree of resentment and anger among the employees the University did not suspect. The strike jolted Harvard into improving the concrete terms of the reassignment policy and its communication with the MTC. But the continued disagreement over the suspension penalty and vestigial dissatisfaction over the contract indicates the University has a long way to go toward pacifying its maintenance workers' grievances.