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As the University undertakes sweeping initiatives to improve scientific research, leaders at Harvard’s largest workers’ union say they hope to prepare their membership by developing experimental self-management teams and establishing laboratory training programs.
Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), said he wants to refocus the union’s energies on improving the daily working lives of the Harvard staff and employee-supervisor relations by training managers to approach workers with “more equality and humanity.”
Jaeger said the union has been working on some experimental models of self-managing work teams that would eliminate the traditional concept of a “boss.”
The University agreed to allot almost a million dollars over the next three years for research in the field as part of recent negotiations with the union, dubbing their collective efforts “New Work Systems at Harvard.” According to Jaeger, specific plans for the experiments will be drawn up next year.
“We’re trying to bring about a quiet revolution in the way that work is designed,” he said. “Our members have a lot of experiences suggesting that traditional ideas about supervision are really psychologically corrosive, and that in the long term, being bossed in a hierarchical way is one of the most harmful things that can happen to a human.”
“It’s basically taking a look at different work that’s done at the University, breaking it down into a redesign that would have more team-oriented focus, more employee input and accountability,” said University Director of Labor Relations Bill Murphy, who sat on the University negotiating team during the last round of talks. “Greater employment engagement in what they do will hopefully lead to better work being done here at Harvard.”
Leon Welch, a unionized purchasing assistant with University Health Services, said he looks forward to having self-management teams at Harvard. Although specific plans have not been revealed to union members, Welch said he is familiar with self-management because his brother worked on a team at the U.S. Postal Service.
“In the mornings you have meetings, and everybody’s sitting around the table, and everyone’s input is valuable,” Welch said. “Everybody owns the job...and they know it. It’s been successful in all the places I’ve ever heard it used.”
Jaeger said he is equally excited about the development of new training opportunities for Harvard employees.
Melissa Brown, director of the Center for Training and Development in the University’s Office of Human Resources, said plans for courses are still in their early stages and that officials are currently investigating precisely what skills the workforce needs to stay current.
“People don’t like to use the word, but it’s a competency analysis,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what makes people successful in their roles and trying to give them opportunities that match that.”
Jaeger called current levels of funding for employee education “scandalously low,” estimating that the University allocates less than 1 percent of the HUCTW payroll to training programs. Although that figure was not up for discussion at the last round of union negotiations completed late last month, Jaeger said he hopes to raise the issue soon.
The University is willing to make training a priority in the future, Brown said, adding that Harvard’s readiness to meet the union halfway is uncharacteristic for an institution of higher learning.
Jaeger said “exploratory conversations” about an entire center devoted to “training and preparation for laboratory and research jobs” have begun.
“It’s not hard to see that that’s a big growth area in the University, and that there’s some really interesting and satisfying and well-paying jobs available to people who have the skills to work in a research lab,” he said.
Martha Fuller, a union negotiator who has been working at Harvard since 1963, said workers facing layoffs and reassignment need to adapt to the University’s changing priorities.
“People need to get more training if they really want to stay at this institution,” she said. “Things are changing, and we certainly can’t stop the change.”
—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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