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The Party's Long Over. For Harvard's Largest Union, It's Time to Renegotiate

The HUCTW Contract

By Gady A. Epstein

Three years have gone by, and for most undergraduates, at least, the bitter fights that brought Harvard its largest union ever have faded into history.

But it's that time again. This fall, members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) and University administrators will begin renegotiating the 3500-person contract that took 17 years and a court battle to achieve.

Many of the same players will participate, but the tenor and the goals have changed. Organizers and administrators look back, not in anger, they say, but with mutual understanding. And they look forward knowing that the recession means there is financial pressure for concessions on both sides.

* * *

In the fall of 1988, Harvard's clerical workers, assistants and support staff voted to unionize. The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers became the largest union at Harvard and stepped into a leading role among employees at the University.

Many officials at the University saw the young union as a threat to its financial well-being and to its flexibility in managing its staff. Harvard tried to convince its staff not to unionize, and after the vote, it fought the union's formation in court.

In its fight to stay alive, the union gained strength and wide support from other unions, students and faculty. The slogan "We can't eat prestige" became the battle cry, reminding the administration that the Harvard name did not put money in workers' pockets.

Eventually, the battle ended, the smoke cleared and Harvard backed down. In February of 1989, the University's largest collective bargaining unit--HUCTW--went to the negotiating table with management. After just four months of negotiation, led by Kris Rondeau for the union and Lamont University Professor emeritus John T. Dunlop '?? for Harvard, the two sides reached agreement on a contract. On June 29, 1989, HUCTW ratified its first contract by a vote of 1551 to 98.

That deal, hailed by labor experts as a strong first agreement, significantly improved pension and health benefits for HUCTW, and, as was expected, the University gave Harvard's six other unions those same benefit packages and other fringe perks (see chart).

Now, the time has come for HUCTW to do something it has never done before in its brief history: renegotiate.

The current three-year contract runs out June 30, 1991, and new contract talks are slated to begin this December. This time around, though, the spectacle of a fiery, emotional, union-management conflict is likely to be absent. The kid gloves are on.

"We don't see each other as enemies," says Jennie H. Rathburn, a member of HUCTW's executive board who works at the reference desk at Houghton Library.

Vice President for Finance Robert H. Scott, who was one of the chief negotiators for the University on the first contract, says he is happy that the union is here. "I think people have learned that this works pretty well," Scott says.

HUCTW President Donene M. Williams says that she expects the negotiations to go smoothly and that completing a contract by June should not be a problem. She attributes this reduced friction between management and union, however, to force rather than good grace. "The only reason that negotiations go smoothly is because the University knows that we're well-organized," Williams said.

Felicia A. Kornbluh '88-'89, a pro-union activist during the first HUCTW contract negotiations and now a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., agrees that Harvard has had to soften its stance.

"I think they've taken a necessary position, and it's one they were drawn to kicking and screaming," Kornbluh says.

Indeed, any anti-union feelings within the administration now must be set aside by necessity, as the largest union is here to stay, many administrators say. "It's just like a kind of campaign situation," Scott says of the first few months, when Harvard fought the union's formation. "Everyone's on two sides, but after that, everybody's got to come together and get to work."

Although the union-administration relationship is no longer a new one, the state of the economy promises to make the upcoming negotiations rather sticky. The University is seeking to cut costs, especially at the administrative level. Payroll is often the first victim of budget cuts, and administrators are looking for places where they feel staff can be reduced.

This summer, Vice President for Administration Sally Zeckhauser floated an early retirement offer to approximately 870 eligible employees. The University expects about one quarter to one half of those eligible to take the offer, and some of those positions left vacant will not be filled. The cost-cutting maneuvers have only begun, and while Scott won't say what kind budget cuts the University is likely to want, Harvard will surely be wearing its tightest of belts at the bargaining table.

Meanwhile, the union will be looking for raises and increased benefits, as its members feel the economic pressures too. "It's no secret that people working here need to make an improvement in their economic situation," Williams says.

What may be the union's most pressing desire--and the most difficult one to attain--is job security. Harvard is clearly looking to cut its payroll costs, and the union wants to be fully employed. "We believe that once someone comes here to work for the University, there should always be a place for them," Williams says.

According to Williams and other union leaders, HUCTW is also looking for increases in education and child care funding, each of which were new features in the first contract, in addition to increases in health and dental coverage. HUCTW will also be looking to strengthen the joint teams, or councils, of union and management officials which meet every week to work on improving the workplace environment.

"The local joint councils, I think, are the heart of the agreement between the union and the University," Williams says. There are joint councils made up of several union and management officials for each school or department.

Some policy changes from the councils include giving University Health Services staff access to word processing programs and allowing Widener Library workers go home at times during the summer when the heat and humidity in the building are too high.

The councils, though, are time-consuming and costly for administrators, Scott says. While the program is worthwhile, he says, he sees no reason to give the councils more power, as the union wants.

In addition to the council issue, the union has some concerns about the merit raise system, leaders say. HUCTW wants to either overhaul the merit system or just do away with it entirely. Union leaders assert that merit rewards, which can be as high as 3 percent of salary, are being unevenly distributed throughout the different parts of the University. Workers are receiving awards not based on an objective, standard review, but rather on subjective grounds.

"It's intended to be a reward and recognition system," Williams says. "Not many people are feeling rewarded or recognized."

Scott says he likes the merit system and contends that the real differences in rewards among departments are insignificant fractions of percentage points. In fact, he says, if management can convince the union the merit system is fair, he'd like to see more money for merit rewards.

Union leaders also seek to establish a benefits package that would include domestic partners, a request denied them in the first contract. "We would like to be able to put our gay and lesbian partners on insurance policies," says Rathburn, who is a lesbian. "We're kind of left out in the cold."

Scott would not comment on the domestic partners issue, except to say, "We, just like the union, will be open to discussing everything."

Indeed, given the recession and the pressures it has brought about, everything in the contract may well be up for discussion during the negotiations this winter and spring. For now, say administrators and union representatives, the lines of communication are open.

The First Contract Between Harvard and HUCTW

(Effective July 1, 1989 and due to expire June 30, 1992)

*The union is an agency shop. Workers who choose not to become union members pay "fair share" fees to the union. Currently, this fee is $15.86 a month, which is the same amount that union members pay for their dues.

*Workers receive structural salary increases totaling 16 percent over 3 years.

*Each January, employees with at least one year of employment receive progressive increases in salary.

*The University can offer merit rewards from 0 to 3 percent per year.

*Pensions are independent of Social Security payments and are adjusted whenever inflation rises above 3 percent.

*Employees with more than 20 years of service received a one-time bonus of $1000.

*$50,000 per year is made available to subsidize child care for all workers in the bargaining unit.

*The University pays for 85 percent of the total cost of health plans.

*Short-term disability pays 70 percent of salary for up to six months. Short-term disability also allow birth mothers to get two months paid leave at 70 percent of salary.

*New fathers and adoptive parents get one week leave at full pay.

*Support staff is eligible for a second free class after two years of work, and $25,000 per year is also available to support education.

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