Saving Harvard’s Middle Class

As many in the Harvard community know, the University and the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers,  representing 4,600 skilled office and laboratory staff, have been in protracted negotiations over pay and benefits since March 2012.

During the course of negotiations, management negotiators have stated that their salary increase offers are “consistent with the job markets.” This prompts the logical question: If that’s the case, why has there not yet been an agreement?

Although it may be true that the University’s pay proposals are consistent with current market trends, that does not mean that those proposals can sustain the lives of the hard-working staff. Like the rest of the country, Harvard’s middle class workforce has taken a huge hit over the last few years due to constrained wage growth and other effects of the economic recession. We have been struggling to pay bills and hold on to homes—some have not succeeded. These excerpts from union members’ letters to Harvard administrators illustrate this unfortunate direction:

“The 2010 salary increase meant 19 dollars a week before taxes. As a single mother of four, that doesn’t even cover bus fare for the week. When my children aren’t feeling well, I’ve found myself wondering, ‘Does he/she really need to see the doctor?’ Sometimes I am choosing between groceries and co-pays.”

“Our rent went up by $100 a month. I have had to decide between using my dwindling savings or not paying a bill so that my family could buy food for another week. We don’t ever buy meat. My wife and I live on the bare edge as we work with a credit consolidation company to pay off our debt. It almost brings me to tears to write this. My daughter wants to take swim lessons—not an unreasonable request—but we can’t afford it.”

“We have sold pretty much everything of value to keep up with the mortgage payments. As a mother, I want to be able to do more. Maybe buy a ticket to a museum or some clothes that didn’t come from a second-hand store. Sometimes I feel like I’ve failed them, and I’m just not used to that.”

Any thoughtful Harvard citizen has to ask, is this the philosophy or the business model on which the University’s greatness is founded? Do administrative leaders believe we should organize the institution around a goal of capitalizing on destructive trends in a wage-depressed job market? When a staff member is worried about whether she can pay for groceries, is she likely to do her best work? Is this the way to build a skillful, committed staff, working hand-in-hand with Harvard faculty and students every day?

Of course, union members understand that the crisis didn’t only batter members’ family finances—it hit University finances as well. Harvard’s endowment lost a substantial amount of value in 2008-2009. But one of the primary ways the University cut spending in 2009 was to reduce staffing without diminishing the amount of work. Staff members (union and non-union) have been doing the jobs of departed colleagues on top of their own work for more than three years . Members have found creative ways to do more with less, as well as working countless hours of uncompensated extra time, in an effort at good citizenship. Yet now, as the endowment has recovered much of its value and the University returns to bold investment in new projects, Harvard seems frustratingly reluctant to recognize the efforts of the staff.

One union member writes, “Harvard staff are some of the most skilled and talented administrative workers in the Boston area. We choose to bring our talents to Harvard because we love what we do here—but we also choose to be at Harvard because the total compensation package meets our needs. Support staff members deserve the dignity of being able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle throughout their careers here.”

HUCTW members understand administrators’ concerns about financial instability. For this reason, we’ve put forward proposals that tie raises to inflation, so that if the economy gets worse, Harvard’s financial obligation to staff will be smaller. Our health care proposals are cost-neutral for the University, and we have suggested curve-bending ideas that would reduce health expenses for Harvard and for all employees. We consider administrators’ concerns about economic uncertainty to be shared concerns. We need for management negotiators to look on the Union’s pay and benefit proposals with that same spirit of mutuality.

A mutually supportive community, in which Harvard takes care of its staff and the staff takes care of Harvard, is critical. Real wage growth will prevent the problems of poverty from seeping further into our workforce. Affordable health care for employees at all levels is essential to preserve a middle class standard of living. But a balanced, progressive bargain is also critical for the future of Harvard. A great University needs a great staff.  Harvard administrators should show that they appreciate our skillful contribution and commitment by settling our contract fairly now.

Carrie Barbash and Bill Jaeger are organizers with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.