By 5 p.m. today lawyers for Harvard and District 65 of the United Auto Workers Union will file briefs before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), opening what may prove to be the final round in an eight-year battle to unionize the clerical and technical workers of the medical area. If the Board rules that Harvard compromised a union election held last spring, a new vote will have to be held. Otherwise, District 65 may have a long wait before it can try again.
Since 1974, when District 65 first began fighting to unionize medical area workers. Harvard has battled back determinedly. There have been months of furious campaigning by both sides, days of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and two bitterly contested elections. But many of the original issues remain unresolved and both sides have developed a deeply entrenched distrust of the other.
The conflict between Harvard and District 65 began soon after a group of women workers in the medical area began talking about organizing a union. The Women's Committee began organizing independently but soon affiliated itself with District 65 which was then associated with the Distributive Workers of America. The Union filed a petition for an election near the beginning of 1975 and the first major confrontation began, over an issue which Harvard considers still unresolved: The so called "unit" question.
District 65 filed for an election to represent only the secretaries, other clerical workers and the lab technicians who work in the Boston medical area--the Medical and Dental Schools and the School of Public Health--but Harvard has typists and bottle-washers all over the University and pays them all on the same pay scale. The union claimed that because the medical area was physically separate from the rest of the University and has different working conditions it was entitled to act as an independent bargaining unit. But Harvard, realizing the potential difficulties of having to negotiate a contract with a union representing only about 30 percent of its clerical and technical staff, immediate opposed the election.
It took two and none-half years of hearings and legal manuvering but in May 1977 the highest appeal panel of the NLRB ruled that because the medical area was "geographically separate" from the rest of the University and had a "medical orientation" it could be considered a separate bargaining unit and an election was scheduled for the next month. Harvard still disputes the ruling and has been working steadily to get the question reconsidered, just last week the University began updating the position papers it filed in the original hearings in anticipation of having the matter reconsidered.
The University's stance on the "unit question" poses difficulties for District 65 organizers. Although General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 says Harvard would be willing to negotiate with a union that represented all of its clerical and technical staff, Kristene Rondeau, District 65's chief organizer, contends that it would he very difficult to organize such a large, scattered group of people who don't know each other, District 65 has made several abortive attempts to unionize workers in Cambridge, but has never been very successful.
Even if District 65 could organize secretaries University-wide and petition for an election. Steiner said Harvard would still fight the union on more philosophical grounds. According to Steiner, District 65 "is a struggling union in financial trouble engaged in very questionable practices," and he adds. "I don't see why Harvard, especially workers at Harvard, should be asked to save District 65."
Harvard developed Steiner's criticisms of the union's constitutional and financial practices in aggressive anti-union campaigns in the June 1977 election--which the union lost by 90 votes--and again in April 1981, when District 65 held it's second election. The union was very critical of Harvard's campaign--which Steiner has said was just an attempt to present both sides of the story--and, after last year's very close election, made a formal charge to the NLRB of unfair labor practices.
The union originally field six separate grievances charging that Harvard interfered with the fairness of the election by a variety of tactics but an NLRB hearing officer in August determined that only two isolated cases in which supervisors gave their employees misinformation about the union could have affected the election results. Rondeau and other union officials see the two incidents as only part of a larger illegal campaign in which Harvard "decided it would be better to win at all costs than to lose fairly," but Harvard officials consider the complaints to be insignificant. "We really broke our backs to run an honest and fair election." Steiner said, dismissing the two cases as the aberrant statements of two people misinformed about the University's position.
After reviewing the case, the NLRB's regional director in Boston agreed with Harvard and over-ruled the earlier decision saying that too few people were involved in the two incidents to have seriously affected the election. But District 65 won a major victory last month when the highest NLRB panel in Washington D.C. decided to review the case. The Board agrees to consider only 10-15 percent of the 650 cases appealed to it each year.
A Board decision in favor of a new election could turn into a major victory for the union. District 65 officials say that because of people's knowledge of what has happened in the past, they would be able to get more votes and win the election. But Harvard so opposed to having District 65 represent the medical workers that if the NLRB favors the University the union will probably reappeal the case to a federal court. Harvard officials are scared of the precedent an NLRB decision against them could set which would mean "there is no way you can run a fair election in a university."
A lot is riding on the upcoming NLRB decision which will determine how future election campaigns and elections will have to be held and the union would agree with Steiner that "it's not a question of winning elections; the important thing here for the future is what are the rules of the game."