When President Neil L. Rudenstine delivered his inaugural address in Tercentenary Theater last fall, the leaders of Harvard's seven labor unions were listening closely.
Three years before, after losing a lengthy court battle, the University was forced to recognize the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), the largest organized labor unit in Harvard's history.
Since the fight, relations between the University and the unions had been tense.
But as Rudenstine spoke this fall, labor leaders decided they liked what they were hearing.
The new president seemed concerned with Harvard's social responsibility. To the unions, that meant a commitment to labor.
Over the next 18 months, Rudenstine's friendly attitude toward organized labor would be tested. Contracts with all seven of the unions were scheduled for renegotiation.
Union leaders did not take Rudenstine's friendliness for granted. During negotiations, six of the seven unions formed an alliance to discuss common interests and present a united front to the University.
Today, more than seven months after Rudenstine's inauguration, most of the unions seem satisfied with the new president's performance.
Two contracts have been completed and two others are on the table. Harvard also signed an unprecedented agreement that commits the University to use only unionized labor on nearly $100 million worth of construction and renovations over the next three years.
"We think that Rudenstine's inaugural address of social responsibility is bearing out," says Joseph W. Nigro secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council and a representative of more than 300 facilities maintenance employees at Harvard.
"With the signing of [the construction and renovations] contract, it's one of the first signs that he's putting his words into effect.," Nigro says.
In addition, some union officials are also pleased with Rudenstine's decision to transfer the Office of Human Resources away from Vice President for Finance Robert H. Scott to Vice President for Administration Sally H. Zeckhauser. They suggest Scott may have placed too much emphasis on the bottom line.
But most of Harvard's other labor leaders stop short of echoing Nigro's unequivocal praise.
Contract talks with HUCTW are now approaching their sixth month, and HUCTW President Donene M. Williams says she is frustrated.
"We're negotiating in a very old-fashioned way, meaning there's wariness," says Williams. "They're not thinking about the merits of something for the University; they're just thinking about the cost."