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After months of “intense” negotiations with Harvard, leaders of Harvard’s largest labor union say it is unlikely that they will reach an agreement before members’ current contract expires.
The union — Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers — represents around 5,100 Harvard employees working in libraries, labs, and faculty offices, among other roles. The union’s current contract is set to expire on Sept. 30, and the new agreement, when reached, will be binding for the next three years.
Even though it looks as if the parties will not reach an agreement by Sept. 30, University spokesperson Melodie Jackson said University representatives were pleased with the bargaining process so far. Jackson wrote in an emailed statement that they believe the past several months have yielded “positive and constructive progress.”
“Members of the HUCTW are highly-regarded members of the University workforce and we are putting forward proposals that reflect that,” Jackson wrote. “The University remains committed to negotiations that will ultimately result in a contract that ensures HUCTW members salary and range of benefits remain at the top of market, when compared to other Boston-area higher education institutions.”
HUCTW president Carrie Barbash said the University and the union have an existing arrangement to keep members’ benefits in place in the absence of a contract. The lack of a resolution will delay any expected raises that the new contract will bring for members, however.
“There's no way that people can actually, at this late date, have their wages in their pockets on Oct. 1,” Barbash said. “But it is still possible we could reach agreement by Oct. 1.”
“Even if we agreed today, there's a lot of processing that has to happen,” she added.
But Jackson said the contract expiring before a new one was in place should not cause alarm. “It is not unusual for negotiations to extend beyond the expiration of a contract and we are committed to continuing to work in partnership with HUCTW toward a speedy resolution,” she wrote.
Representatives from the University and the union first met each other at the bargaining table informally in Dec. 2017, and the two sides began concrete, issue-based negotiations in the spring. Since then, the two sides have held bargaining sessions “virtually every week, often multiple times a week,” according to an email sent to union members Monday afternoon.
In that email, union leaders characterized the negotiations as “respectful and constructive” but also “intense and frustrating.” About a month ago, both sides agreed to initiate the use of two predetermined third-party mediators, Barbash said.
The mediators — Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economics professor, and Robert B. McKersie, professor emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management — have previously played a role in HUCTW bargaining, mediating for negotiations in both 2013 and 2015. Barbash said their primary role in negotiations is to consult with University and union bargaining teams, both separately and together, and come up with creative “win-win” solutions.
HUCTW’s Monday email to union members delineated three “most critical” topics of debate in the bargaining sessions: salary increases, healthcare benefits, and the use of contingent workers. As of now, HUCTW leaders feel the union and the University are “too far apart on” all three of these issues to conclude negotiations before the Sept. 30 deadline.
Barbash declined to comment on the specific salary proposals that have been made. She did say, though, that the union’s bargaining committee is “looking for raises that allow members to keep up with inflation and make a little progress on top of that.”
The union is also at odds with University representatives over healthcare — a divisive issue during the union’s last negotiations in 2015. Specifically, HUCTW leaders wrote in the email that there is a “substantial distance” between the University and the union over how different levels of healthcare premiums should be adjusted to keep pace with rising costs, inflation, and wages.
The University and the union are also divided over how to classify contingent workers — temps and workers who are employed less than 17.5 hours per week.
In many cases, Barbash said, these workers are hired in accordance with HUCTW’s current contract policy, which states that temporary employees can only be hired for a maximum of three months.
Other times, however, the employees are kept in temporary positions for extended periods of time without being granted the status of full employees. This prevents them from joining the union and receiving benefits, a situation that worries Barbash and the union negotiators.
“We're concerned that there's people who should really be in the union with union protections, union benefits, Harvard benefits, and it really feels like they're not getting a fair deal,” Barbash said. “If you're in one of these temporary, precarious positions for years and years and years, that doesn't seem to really be meeting the spirit of the agreement that says… the use of these [temporary positions] is supposed to be strictly limited.”
“The gist of the whole thing is if you're doing HUCTW work, you should be in a HUCTW job,” she added.
The continuation of talks past September means that HUCTW’s negotiations may overlap with the first contract negotiations of Harvard’s newly-formed students union, Harvard Graduate Students Union - United Automobile Workers. HGSU-UAW leaders have said they expect to begin bargaining with the University this semester.
Ultimately, Barbash said negotiations remain productive, and she is hopeful that they will be resolved soon.
“Both parties are making a good faith effort to try and resolve of the contract as soon as possible,” Barbash said. “I think we're just maybe not seeing eye to eye on certain issues, but I feel like everyone is engaging in a productive way.”
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