A Laborious Task


"A working class hero is something to be." John Lennon

CHARLIE CROCKETT works the graveyard shift as a security guard at the chemistry labs. He is also president of the University's largest and oldest union, the Harvard University Employees Representative Association (HUERA), which includes about 500 custodians and 50 security guards.

In his spare time, Crockett attends all second-and third-step grievance hearings, meets with the union's executive board regularly, keeps in touch with fellow workers, talks to University officials to improve communication, and tries to lead a decent family life. He estimates he has saved the jobs of ten to 12 Buildings and Grounds workers since he took office in February 1979. He has also presided over the largest raise ever given his union by Harvard. Recently, he came under fire from the union's governing board, which took him to court in an unsuccessful effort to get a restraining order.

Crockett admits the union is mad at him because he "blew our case" in an unfair labor practice suit filed by HUERA with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) this summer. But he also couches his "mistake" in different terms. "I am being condemned for telling the truth."

The dilemma faced by HUERA's sincere and sometimes ingenuous president is not an anomaly among the University's top union representatives. On the one hand, they all must faithfully defered the best interests of their unions. On the other, they must find some way to deal effectively with the University's stubborn attitude toward its support services. Ed Powers, Harvard's chief contract negotiator and counsel for labor relations, once said, "It would be a shame to drain resources unnecessarily to our support services. Harvard is primarily an educational institution."


Forced to tread the fine line between gaining benefits for their unions and acting as adversaries to a staunch administration, union leaders at Harvard hold a thankless job. From all corners of the University, no matter what the specific union, isolated voices cry out for stronger action--strikes, grievances, unfair labor practice suits. The silent majority of Harvard's workers desires money in the pocket, job security and quiet. University officials no doubt relish this complacency and have an interest in fragmented unions. In the Medical Area, where District 65 of the United Auto Workers is attempting to organize clerical and technical personnel, the University will fight to the finish to prevent a union victory--as it did, barely, in 1977. Any semblance of worker unity will meet with vigorous opposition from a University beholden to its balanced budget.

FRED WALDEN, vice president of Local 26, the union representing Harvard's dining hall workers, knows too well the feeling of being tugged two ways. As a negotiator at last spring's contract sessions, he recognized the need to get his constituency what it wanted--a wage increase in an inflationary era. But he watched in dismay as Harvard attached a proviso to its three-year deal calling for successive 10-, 9- and 8-per-cent raises. The University said it would contract out the Harkness dining hall at the Law School. To its credit, Harvard assured that none of the Harkness employees were laid off. But Walden understood when Harkness workers threw chairs at the black-board in the Science Center room where the union held its ratification vote late last May because he was a cook at Harkness.

Harvard's legalistic and business-like techniques frustrate union activists, breeding a sort of paranoia. The evidence shows that concern on the part of union leaders is not unfounded. Consider the case of Sherman Holcombe, a dining hall shop steward suspended in 1977 for cooking cauliflower au gratin too long--during a period when he had become particularly outspoken about Harvard's treatment of its workers. Or the case oy Alan Balsam, a dining hall chief shop steward suspended for cooking hamburgers too long--in the middle of a particularly feisty round of contract negotiations. Even if persecuted union leaders take the University to court, their cases tend to get mired in the legal system's muck, passing stage after stage until, maybe five laters, they win. They come out wiser, but not richer, for the experience.

HUERA's vice president, Darleen Bonislawski, recently felt that brand of paranoid persecution. So did Ed Gardin, an HUERA shop steward. They had filed a grievance against Harvard on behalf of part-time workers and shortly afterwards began to feel the heat. The University, they believed, was harassing them for their union activity--Gardin complained of being followed, and Bonislawski stomped out of a meeting with the manager of custodial services when he told her she needed permission before doing union business during working hours. The union's contract stipulates that officials such as Bonislawski or Gardin must receive permission--but, Bonislawski points out, Harvard makes it difficult to obtain permission. Gardin and Bonislawski filed a grievance of their own, alleging discrimination.

Then Crockett, as HUERA president, entered the picture. He attended the grievance hearings and agreed with the University that the two union officials in fact needed permission, which Harvard proved they didn't receive. Rather than take the case to arbitration, the union decided to file an unfair labor practice suit with the NLRB. Crockett unwittingly signed the unfair labor practice suit, without being informed by the union's lawyer of the nature of the document. He returned from his summer vacation, received a call from the manager of custodial services, and unwittingly signed an affadavit supporting the University's position. Crockett acknowledges he was "confused."

The union's executive board reacted vehemently--how could HUERA expect to win a case with the NLRB if the union's president supported Harvard's position? The governing board demanded his resignation, and Crockett says he told the governing board, "I'll resign if you want me to." He never signed a paper declaring he had resigned, but later changed his mind. HUERA filed suit in an effort to get an injunction barring him from conducting union business. Crockett defended himself, and the suit was thrown out of court.

Crockett's Catch-22 exemplifies the squeeze most union executives must feel during their tenure. The University, of course, stands to gain from a divided union, because it reduces the union's leverage. The administration also stands to gain from refusing to deal with any union member who will fight the University at the smallest opportunity. For Charlie Crockett, the question was poignant: should he lie for the union or tell the truth for the University? For him, the answer was never in doubt.

BUT ALTHOUGH THE unfair labor practice suit--which the union will now try to clean up as quickly and as neatly as possible--is no longer viable legally, it still represents a profound moral problem. The University will continue to exert pressure on union officials who vocally and emotionally oppose its tactics and attitude. And that small number of union officials who are made to feel uncomfortable about their livelihood because they believe in continuing the struggle--whether or not they are "harassed"--will remain frustrated in efforts to tackle an imposing administration.

Perhaps the whole problem could be mitigated if the University did not feel so terribly reluctant to "drain resources to our support services." If Harvard is "primarily an educational institution," a significant part of its educational purpose is the liberal arts. Despite difficult economic times, the University might consider acting more liberally and humanely when dealing with its workers. Charlie Crockett would still work the graveyard shift, but he would have fewer headaches.

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