The University's Clean Sweep

May 24, 1976: About 100 University dining hall workers stage a lunchtime walkout to hold an "emergency meeting" after a kitchen manager threatens to fire their chief shop steward--because he allegedly cooked hamburgers too long. In February, the University suspends an activist shop steward--for cooking cauliflower au gratin too long.

May 13, 1977: The National Labor Relations Board rules that District 65, Distributive Workers of America, may hold an election among Medical Area clerical and technical personnel to determine whether the union can represent them in their dealings with Harvard. The NLRB decision climaxes a two-and-a-half year legal battle between the University and District 65. June 29: Medical Area workers vote to reject the union's bid to represent them by a margin of 436-346, putting a halt to the organizing campaign.

March 21, 1978: Approximately 300 Buildings and Grounds (B&G;) employees, all members of the Maintenance Trades Council (MTC) union, stay off their jobs to support picket lines of the carpenters' local. The local stages a wildcat strike after the University orders five of its carpenters to report to work as painters and lampers, bringing to a head the controversial issue of job re-classification. The B&G; walkout lasts three days, forcing the department to shut down all but emergency services.

The University labor scene the last two springs has not exactly been laced with drama. At this point last year, however, the quiet in Harvard's relations with its non-teaching employees seemed a calm before the storm. As students returned to Cambridge to begin the academic year, the office of the Associate General Counsel faced the not too tantalizing task of reaching agreements with all six Harvard unions whose contracts expired in the coming seven months.

To confront the onslaught of bargaining battles, the University designed a standard three-year package offering successive 10-, 9- and 8-per-cent annual wage increases. The "10-9-8" deal, as it became known, was fashioned under the assumption that economic issues would have primacy in negotiation sessions. Edward W. Powers, associate general counsel for employee relations and chief negotiator for the University, says the 10-9-8-- roughly a $1000 raise for "the average worker"--also represented an effort on the part of Harvard to compensate for the settlements of two years ago, which "turned out not that generous" in the light of snowballing inflation.

Most Harvard labor leaders last fall did not foresee smooth contract talks. A general sentiment that "money doesn't mean anything anymore," as one B&G; worker said, and the remnants of longstanding disputes between the unions and the University over issues such as attrition, discrimination, contracting out and job security did not seem to bode well for easy negotiations. Union leaders expressed a willingness to struggle hard after a two-year hiatus, and resentment towards Harvard's attitude--"It's a shame to drain off financial resources unnecessarily to the support services," Powers says--did not promise tranquil bargaining sessions.

Despite these advance signals of difficulties, negotiations between the administration and the unions proceeded without significant problems--so smoothly, in fact, that even Powers says it was "a quiet year." His office had fewer troubles with labor than with other areas, including real estate and sundry lawsuits. Sitting in his recently-renovated office on the ninth floor of Holyoke Center, Powers smiles at the lack of labor cause celbres this year, saying, "We don't really enjoy attention."

One by one, union negotiating teams met with Powers and his assistants braced for tough, drawn-out talks. But one by one, the unions settled for the University's first and only offer, the 10-9-8. The Harvard University Employees Representatives Association (HUERA) bargaining on behalf of custodians and security guards, then the MTC (carpenters, electricians and painters), the Harvard University Police Association, Locals 300 and 16b of the Graphic Arts International Union (bookbinders and lithographers), and finally Harvard's biggest union (Local 26 of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Employees Union, representing dining hall employees) and the University's smallest union (Local 13 of the Boston Typographical Union) accepted the 10-9-8 proposal in turn.

Harvard's strategists had accurately anticipated the primary concern of union negotiators and the rank and file: money in the pocket. "I don't think the unions worry too much about job security and outside contracting as much as they did a few years back," Powers says. He calls the 10-9-8 deal "generous and above average," particularly in view of presidential wage guidelines and in relation to comparable labor markets. But the administration's approach to negotiations this year did not signify a radical departure from the attitude that engendered the unrest prior to 1978. Powers' bargaining method proved unbending and hard-line; he said in September that Harvard was not prepared to underwrite increased costs to the workers caused by inflation and rising fuel prices, and presented the 10-9-8 in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, union officials claim.

Built in to each union contract was a provision that it could return to the table to renegotiate if another Harvard union received a better deal. Once one union had agreed to the 10-9-8, therefore, the other unions recognized the near impossiblity of extracting a more lucrative package from Harvard, and reacted accordingly.

Harvard's strategy, however, almost backfired in its negotiations with Local 26, representing the dining hall employees. Powers offered the 10-9-8 with a clause making the proposal retroactive to April 1 (the kitchen workers' present contract expires June 19) before bargaining started. The union membership voted down the offer in March, instead approving a list of demands asking for a 20-per-cent across the board wage increase, improved fringe benefits, and additional holidays.

Powers notes in retrospect that at the time "the news was carrying all that stuff about 18- per-cent inflation every day," adding that he may have committed a strategical error presenting the 10-9-8 before negotiations were slated to begin. "Sometimes if you offer nothing at first and then come back with something, you look incredibly generous," he says. When the Local 26 team forwarded its list of demands at the initial bargaining session April 9, Powers dismissed them as "unrealistic," withdrew his original 10-9-8 offer, and refused to present a counterproposal until the union drastically changed its requests. Harvard dining hall shop stewards termed Powers' attitude "hostile," and negotiations were stalled for more than a month.

During the interim, prolonged by the vacation of the union's attorney, the dining hall leaders and Powers exchanged leaflets. After Harvard shop stewards accused Powers of not bargaining in good faith, Powers responded by saying the union was responsible for the negotiation delay. When the two sides did return to the table, both parties deemed the dialogue "constructive," and the union significantly altered its list of demands, requesting the 10-9-8 plan. Bargaining concluded swiftly and the rank and file, despite its veto of the same proposal in March, ratified the contract in late May.

Most Harvard workers have expressed general satisfaction over the settlements reached. Fred Walden, vice president of Local 26, says "It's about the best we could hope for." Darlene I. Bonislawski, vice president of HUERA, says the agreement served everyone's best interests. Walden points to the conservative attitude of University workers, particularly the older ones. "It's a good offer, and they'll take what they can get."

The relatively trouble-free contract negotiations this year derived from a willingness on the part of Harvard's unions to accept identical 10-9-8 offers with little ado, indicating that the unions considered the 10-9-8 the best they could hope for. Union leaders and Powers alike concede that all the unions had reservations about agreeing to a three-year deal in an uncertain economic climate. "I think the unions realized that a non-profit institution such as Harvard has a very difficult time reacting to severe inflation. We cannot easily pass the cost increases along, the way a car company can, for example," Powers says. All in all, he adds, "It was a good year for bargaining."

Despite workers' approval of the settlements, many employees still resent what they perceive as Harvard's condescending mindset toward its support services "They say workers are dispensable. They say they could do outside contracting at a cheaper rate. They say they could bust the union by bringing in part-timers. How are we supposed to feel secure with high inflation?" one Harvard shop steward says, indicating that the University's impersonal approach to workers alienates and frightens a good number.

Although Harvard pulled off a clean sweep in its contract negotiations this year, workers' sentiments reflect early rumblings from the Medical Area where the University's old nemesis, District 65, initiated its second attempt to organize clerical and technical staff. Although District 65 was rumored to file for the right to hold a unionizing election this spring, the union postponed its plans to file with the NLRB until September. One of the union's chief organizers, Leslie A. Sullivan, says District 65 has learned from its first protracted struggle with the University. Sullivan says she expects favorable results this time around.

But Powers says the University will not easily give ground to District 65's efforts. If the union's appeal to the NLRB for an election is approved, and if workers in the Medical Area vote to have District 65 represent them, the University will still contest the United Auto Workers affiliate's appropriateness as a bargaining unit. "It's very important to us that, as an employer, our units are not fragmented," Powers says. Some envision pamphlet wars similar to the one waged by the administration in 1977. In what District 65 termed an attempt to systematically undermine its organizing campaign, the University gave clerical and technical workers a 3-per-cent across-the-board wage boost January 1.

The specter of District 65 probably pales in comparison to what the office of the associate general counsel faced this September. With all of the outstanding union contracts satisfactorily settled for a three-year period. Powers can lean back and take a labor breather for the time being. Neither the unions nor the administration, however, display an air of complacency; recent history has provided ample examples of how quickly disputes can flare, especially in a time of economic stress. Powers, for one, does not mind being on guard; he says he has seen so many disagreements in his stay at Harvard that he describes himself as jaded. "I prefer a business-like relationship," he says. "Good labor relations is our goal, but sometimes, there's bound to be conflict." This year, there wasn't.