It’s been just under two weeks since the Maintenance Trade Council (MTC) rejected a new work contract, leaving Harvard about 13 days to redraw its terms before hundreds of unionized workers can shelve their tools, terminate their existing contracts and announce a strike.
When a majority of the MTC’s voting membership turned down the University’s contract proposal on May 24, a year of tumultuous labor relations and widespread worker dissatisfaction came to a violent, angry conclusion.
“People were standing up screaming,” said one worker who voted for the strike authorization and against the contract.
The worker, an electrician who asked to remain anonymous, said that although the MTC—a coalition of five smaller campus unions—has the only contract at Harvard with an absolute “no layoffs” clause, the 1.5-percent first-year wage increase being offered by the University is too low in light of the wages paid to University higher-ups.
“Can you believe it?” the worker said. “Here they are telling us, ‘We’re broke, we have no money,’ but there was plenty of money to go around for the University’s upper management.”
Still, an actual strike seems unlikely, according to Joe Borelli, an employee with Yard maintenance.
“We’d lose all our leverage,” he said. The valuable “no layoffs” clause, negotiated many years ago, would disappear immediately and workers would face the threat of outsourcing companies, Borelli said.
“They would love to get that out. Every year, that’s the first thing they ask for,” he said, adding that a higher wage increase—3 percent for the first year—is all he wants.
QUESTIONING THE BOTTOM LINE
According to Merry Touborg, a spokesperson for the Office of Human Resources, over 200 Harvard employees have been laid off since last June.
The layoffs this year came as a response to budget troubles cited by Harvard. Managers in all University departments were presented with budgetary goals from the central administration and instructed to make the necessary reductions to meet the bottom line. Some cut services, while others laid off workers and cut positions. Some had to do both—the Harvard College Library, facing a projected $2.3-million deficit, was forced to close both Hilles and Kummel Libraries and lay off about 14 workers.
But widely publicized eight-figure salaries paid to Harvard’s top endowment managers have raised doubts about claims of budget troubles, undermining an intense ongoing initiative to cut costs at every level of operation.
“Our view would be that in general, the financial resources are not severely constrained, or they’re constrained only in relation to some of those years in the ’90s when the available revenue increased by as much as 20 or 30 percent per year,” said Bill Jaeger, director of the 4,800-member Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). “Departments were finding themselves with millions and millions of dollars to budget, and no one had to say ‘no’ to anything. It’s a little bit more real-world around here now, and all the schools and departments are finding ways to deal with that.”
Activist groups such as the No Layoffs Campaign have staged rallies and repeatedly pointed to the University’s $19.3-billion endowment as proof that the layoffs were unnecessary. HUCTW leaders were more sympathetic toward the administration, taking steps to adjust to changing financial priorities and restrictions on the endowment.
“People say the Harvard endowment is big, and as successful as it is, they could afford to give us all a 10-percent raise,” Jaeger said. “I’d go one further—they could actually afford to buy us each a yacht, but it’s not clear that that would be fair, or that that would be the right thing to do with the University’s resources.”