An Unexploited Union

Despite protests, Harvard’s contract offer with HUCTW is fair

Student activists and union members have led recent protests in support of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents 4,600 employees, during the longest contract negotiations between the University and HUCTW in history. Among the negotiation’s most contentious issues is a disagreement over wage increases. While HUCTW portrays the University’s current offer as unjust, Harvard’s proposed salary increases, well above local inflation, are both fair and reasonable.

With an average salary of $50,000 as of 2011 and wage increases consistently beating local inflation, HUCTW workers are paid well above competitive market rates—average compensation is at the 75th percentile for the industry. The University’s three-year offer for a salary increase of 2.8 percent in the first year, 2.5 percent in the second, and two percent in the third are fair in comparison to the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate of a 1.7 percent inflation rate for the Boston area. Perhaps the University’s offer is not luxurious, but it is certainly not exploitative.

Compared to the rest of the country, where hourly pay has stagnated since 2000 when adjusted for inflation, HUCTW workers have fared much better even when compared with cost of living increases in the Boston area. From 2002-2011, based on data on HUCTW’s website and BLS statistics, real wages for HUCTW members have increased 13.7 percent. While this increase might be viewed as modest, union leaders cannot in good faith claim that the University has treated the union unfairly.

Admittedly, HUCTW’s actions are understandable—it is, after all, the role of a labor union to advocate for the best possible outcome for its members. But to a dispassionate observer, the union’s rejection of Harvard’s reasonable offer seems a fallacious dramatization of the contract negotiations as something of a Dickensian dispute between a rich university and its mistreated workers.

The most troubling and pernicious assertions made by some are the insinuations that the University’s large endowment and recent expansions make it somehow obligated to agree to hefty wage increases. To the contrary, the University’s endowment exists to allocate funds towards programs—like the investment in EdX or campus renovations—that advance the priorities and educational mission of Harvard most effectively. To say that the University’s endowment makes it liable to increase its already fair contract offer is to ignore the realities of the job market, where compensation is based on the value of a job in the marketplace rather than institutional wealth.

We hope that HUCTW members will urge their leaders to bring a swift end to the protracted contract negotiations. Ending this prolonged fight is in the interest of HUCTW, the University, and the students whom they both seek to serve.