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Harvard Arboretum Workers Ratify New Four-Year Contract

Harvard's 17 permanent arboretum workers ratified a new contract with the University Wednesday.
Harvard's 17 permanent arboretum workers ratified a new contract with the University Wednesday. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s arboretum workers unanimously ratified a new contract Wednesday, securing an annual three percent increase in wages for the four years the contract is in place, along with new benefits and job classifications.

The 17 permanent staff who maintain the arboretum grounds in Boston — along with full-time seasonal employees — are represented by 32BJ SEIU, a union comprising many groups of workers across the University. 32BJ SEIU also represents roughly 1,000 Harvard custodians and security guards, but each unit negotiates its own contract. The arboretum workers’ contract expired Nov. 15, which was also the day that the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a replacement.

32BJ SEIU Vice President Roxana Rivera said the bargaining committee felt “very strongly” that they had come to a good tentative agreement and voted unanimously to bring it to the membership for ratification.

The contract was ratified 18-0 Wednesday, according to alternate shop steward and horticulturist Laura J. Mele.

In addition to the wage increase, the contract adds one personal day for full-time employees, creates a new job classification of lead horticulturist, and allows seasonal employees to take holiday, sick, and vacation time.

“It was very important to ensure that these workers and their families were able to stay up with the rising cost of living in Boston,” Rivera said.

Shop steward Nima Samimi, who works as a gardener, said he was “proud” of the contract he and his co-workers had won.

“In a time when employers in many different sectors are chipping away at contracts, we were able to maintain our wages, benefits, [and] rights at a high level, which is a big deal in horticulture in particular, since our sector is rarely unionized,” Samimi said.

Although bargaining stretched to the final day of the previous contract, Rivera said this was not because of contentions in the negotiations, but an “issue of schedule.”

“There wasn’t an issue of, you know, where we didn't think that either side was bargaining in good faith,” Rivera said.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement that the two sides met for 10 to 12 formal negotiating sessions since September and came to a mutually beneficial agreement.

“This agreement recognizes the important role SEIU 32BJ workers have in the success of the Arboretum’s mission and work, and reflects the commitment on the part of both the SEIU and the University to a fair and equitable agreement that provides additional benefits and wage increases to union members, alongside operational flexibility for Arboretum management,” Swain wrote.

Rivera said that because the contracts for the janitorial staff and security guards each expire in November 2020, instead of alongside the arboretum workers’, she felt it was important to negotiate a strong contract for the arboretum workers.

“It was important for us a good contract for the Harvard Arboretum workers because I think that, you know, will help as we go into next year for the rest of the bargaining unit,” Rivera said.

Mele said that although the unit was “fortunate” to already have a strong previous agreement, all 17 members met once a week since February to discuss potential improvements. Each person researched the history and implementation of one or two contract articles and brought any concerns to the group, Mele said.

The unit consists of horticulturalists, arborists, and gardeners, Mele said. A typical day includes meeting in the morning to discuss priorities, then dispersing in teams of two to three to maintain various aspects of the 281-acre grounds.

“This is basically a living museum so every tree and shrub has been planted on purpose and collected from all over the world,” Mele said. “It's really a very unique job.”

Correction: Dec. 14, 2019

A previous version of this article stated that arboretum workers secured a three percent raise for the four years the contract is in place. To clarify, they secured an annual three percent increase for each of the four years.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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