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Campus Workers Unite Under HUCTW

By Christine Y. Cahill and David W. Kaufman, Crimson Staff Writers

Director of the new Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers Kris Rondeau was attending a rally for Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign in a packed Sanders Theater when she received the good news.

A staff member carried the urgent message to Rondeau: The University’s efforts to block the creation of the union had been overturned by a regional judge. HUCTW was now official.

Rondeau whispered the news to an aide, who then passed along a note to the speaker on the stage: renowned civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. The reverend stopped mid-sentence.

“A ray of hope in Cambridge!” he declared, looking out over the hundreds of screaming people sitting in the rows in front of him.

“We won again,” Rondeau said to the audience. “Their unmistakable goal was to beat the union, and they just failed. Now, finally, I hope they can recognize reality.”

Rondeau’s announcement that day was the culmination of a 17-year movement that had begun with a small group of female organizers at Harvard’s Longwood campus and gradually won the support of the majority of Harvard’s approximately 4000 staff employees.

“When we won, no one was more surprised than we were,” Rondeau said. “It was kind of an impossible task, and I don’t think anybody really thought it could be done.”

Since the very beginning, union organizers had sought to further their cause with a good-natured and community-oriented manner.

“We had this feeling that...maybe a group with a lot of modern ideas about human relations and community building could do the union thing in a partially new way,” said Bill Jaeger, an organizer at the time and the union’s current director.

Despite the novel organizing strategies that union leaders attempted, they still came up against a fierce anti-union campaign led by a University committed to preventing organized labor. While early pushback by Harvard officials threatened the drive to organize, union leaders successfully built up a broad base of support—one that ultimately brought administrators to the bargaining table.

PRO-UNION, NOT ANTI-HARVARD

When Rondeau and several former Harvard staff members formed the independent HUCTW in August of 1985, they faced a singular challenge.

By renouncing any affiliation with the United Auto Workers, or any other nationwide organization, the new union was on its own. HUCTW had to rely completely on Harvard staff and its own sources of funding to sustain the movement.

“Everything had to be made up as we went along, so that was extremely challenging,” Rondeau said. “There was no blueprint for how to do something like this, and we just had to figure it out kind of by putting one foot in front of the other, and that was hugely exciting.”

Forming an official union required that HUCTW organizers gain a majority of the staff ’s support in an election held through the National Labor Relations Board. As a result, one of the first tasks that Rondeau and other union leaders faced was winning their colleagues’ support.

According to Marie Manna, a former employee at the School of Public Health, the majority of the organizing in advance of the votes involved one-on-one conversations with employees.

During lunch hours, Manna and other staff members went out in teams of two, meeting as many people as possible to discuss why they felt representation was so important.

One challenge that the organizers encountered was that most workers were satisfied with Harvard as an employer and did not understand how someone could elect to join a union but still be satisfied with one’s job.

“[It] was hard for people to reconcile that,” Manna said.

To make the new union’s intentions clear, Congressman Barney E. Frank ’61-’62, who came out in support of HUCTW in March of 1988, created a slogan encapsulating these feelings.

“It’s not anti-Harvard to be pro-union,” the motto read.

“[The campaign] was, ‘Let’s go out and talk to people and hear about what their lives have been like and their work experience, and try to help them to understand why there’s a lot of people who want a union,’” Manna said.

SINGING, NOT STRIKING

The idea that HUCTW’s focus was not on particular grievances, but instead on the broader principle of representation, made the union appealing for Jaeger, who was working at the time as a staff assistant in what is now known as the Davis Center for European Studies.

“There wasn’t anything angry about it,” Jaeger said. “Nobody was shouting, nobody was whining.”

Instead, union organizers took to singing to further their cause within the Harvard community. Staff members formed an a capella group called the Pipettes that sang light-hearted jingles to communicate the workers’ message.

“There was a lot of excitement in our organizing drive about the idea that maybe we could build a determined and powerful organization that could make progress in relentlessly peaceful and community-oriented kind of ways,” Jaeger said.

Part of this effort to engage the community included getting students involved in the push to unionize.

Damon A. Silvers ’86, an undergraduate during the beginning of the movement, went on to work in the union’s office after graduation. According to Silvers, there were several hundred students who were actively involved in supporting the workers, many of whom were recent college graduates themselves.

“There was a lot of kind of natural vicinity between the students and the workers in the technical unit,” Silvers said.

THE ANTI-UNION CAMPAIGN

Despite the union’s non-confrontational approach, organizers still met significant opposition from Harvard, which had already managed to dodge unionization efforts twice in the past decade.

In addition, organizers often struggled to convince their own colleagues that having a union to represent them and negotiate on their behalf was in their best interest.

“It’s hard to get people to vote yes, because what they’re voting for is to change the way things are,” Rondeau said.

A group of workers in the Medical Area campus had tried in 1977 and in 1981 to elect a union but failed to gain a majority of employee votes on both occasions.

This time around, individuals working to establish the union expected to face not just a reluctant work force, but also significant opposition from the University.

“People had told me...that Harvard had fought pretty hard against the union, and so we tried to prepare people,” said Manna. While former University President Derek C. Bok acknowledged the right of Harvard’s employees to unionize, he made it clear that the University would oppose any such push.

As union activity picked up in the beginning of 1987—when HUCTW gained national backing from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees—Harvard resorted to a number of anti-union strategies commonly used by employers. “To some extent, Harvard’s campaign was a textbook anti-union campaign,” Jaeger said.

In January of 1988, University administrators distributed union briefing books to supervisors—informational packets which contained lists of legal anti-union statements and highlighted positive aspects of employee contracts at Harvard. And that March, administrators began holding informational meetings for staffers to lay out the University’s anti-union stance.

A NARROW VICTORY

The push to unionize came to a head on May 17, 1988, when HUCTW was put to a vote by all of Harvard’s support staff. Volunteers and organizers sat anxiously in Sanders Theatre for four hours, waiting for the final tally.

Although the union was elected that day by a narrow margin, its battles were far from over. One of its first challenges was confronting a University that still refused to recognize its existence.

“We probably would have been interested in starting some conversations with the people we were going to be negotiating with in the future, but there was no platform for that,” Jaeger said. “The beginnings of the building of a relationship didn’t happen for some months after the election.”

In the months following the vote, Harvard appealed to the NLRB to have the election overturned on the grounds that HUCTW coerced its workers into voting for unionization.

But that fall, Harvard’s appeal was overturned and the University declined to take the case to federal court. That same day, hundreds of Harvard staff and union supporters poured in to Sanders Theater to hear Rondeau and Jackson deliver the triumphant news.

“I think there was a turning point in late 1988...when Derek Bok and [chief University negotiator John T. Dunlop] decided together on behalf of the University to stop fighting and trying to undo the election result,” Jaeger said.

As the University finally came to terms with the reality of HUCTW’s existence, Jaeger said that by the time the first round of negotiations came around, representatives from the union and from management had established a healthy rapport.

“A lot of the best ideas and most important things that we do together still came out of that first negotiation,” said Jaeger. “We went from complete estrangement to a really good energetic, productive, negotiating process in the matter of just a few months.”

—Staff writer Christine Y. Cahill can be reached at christinecahill@ college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @ccahill16.

—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached davidkaufman@ college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @DKauf.

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Class of 1988Commencement Feature