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Two Harvard Unions Prepare for Another Attempt at Merger

University Hall.
University Hall. By Michael Gritzbach
By James S. Bikales and Ruoqi Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers

Three years ago, when two of Harvard’s unions proposed a merger, talks with the University fell through. Now, the unions – one the largest union at Harvard, and the other one of the smallest – are preparing to reopen their case.

The Harvard University Security, Parking, and Museum Guards Union, which has about 80 members, hopes to merge with the 5,200-member Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers before HUSPMGU’s contract runs out in 2020, HUSPMGU President Curt E. Rheault said.

When the two unions first tried to merge in 2016, more than 90 percent of HUSPMGU’s members supported the move. The two unions then approached Harvard with the merger proposal as HUSPMGU’s contract was being re-negotiated that spring.

At the time, the University raised legal questions about the proposal and, with HUCTW’s contract negotiations coming up, the merger was put on the “back burner,” Rheault said.

Now, Rheault wants to restart those talks, saying the issues that affected the union in 2016 are just as salient today. He said HUSPMGU workers would benefit from being part of a stronger union as they would have more resources.

“We're a small union,” Rheault said. “We're the lowest paid union, actually, at the University.”

Beyond strengthening members’ representation, Rheault also pointed to the improved career development prospects and “upward mobility” that the merger could bring to HUSPMGU’s membership.

“There are good and bad and different things. But at the end of the day, we're just a small unit that wishes to be part of a big unit that's going to help us out a lot more than our resources can afford,” he said.

In response to the 2016 proposal, Harvard Director of Labor Relations Paul R. Curran responded with a letter that raised legal questions about the merger. Curran cited a provision in National Labor Relations Act that precludes employees classified as “guards” from being in a union with non-guards.

Legal experts, however, said that this provision would not preclude HUCTW and HUSPMGU from merging.

University of Oregon Professor Gordon Lafer, who formerly served as a senior labor policy advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, wrote in an email that the legal provision limiting guards’ membership dates back to a time when the role of security guards was to act as “company police.”

“Partly the thought was they might be policing picket lines and strikes and therefore management would want to make sure they weren't in the same union as the people they might be policing in a strike,” Lafer wrote. “But at most universities, ‘security guards’ are mostly doing things like monitoring parking lots and art museums.”

In spite of that, the University is not legally obligated to recognize the merger of the two unions, Lafer wrote.

“This is due to the particular case of security guards – labor law (written in the 1930s) assumes that security guards are different from other types of employees and therefore it won't require an employer to recognize a union that has everyone together,” he wrote.

“They can certainly say ‘we don't legally have to, and we don't want to.’ But it's not accurate to say ‘we're prohibited by law from doing this,’” Lafer wrote, referring to the University’s 2016 position that such a merger is prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act.

Even if Harvard were to allow the union merger, William B. Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the school could choose not to bargain with the group. If that were to happen, the merged unions would be unable to petition the NLRB to compel Harvard to bargain with them.

Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University, also said that though the merger would be legal, the new union would not have rights enforceable by the NLRB because labor laws limit that body’s recognition of unions with guard and non-guard members.

But that might not be necessary, according to Estreicher.

“If the union is strong, they could go out on strike and compel Harvard to bargain,” he said.

Rheault thinks the merger effort will face three main challenges: legal questions, concerns about how the merger might affect Harvard operations, and financial impacts on the University.

He said he is open to a gradual implementation of the merger to reduce the burden on the University.

“Does it happen over two years, three years, what is it so that the Harvard operations have time to adjust and plan for that?” he said.

Rheault said HUSPMGU reached out to HUCTW two weeks ago and the two sides plan to sit down “soon.”

“We're constantly in touch with the HUSPMGU leadership and still actively interested in trying to find a way to combine our unions and have them be one unified thing,” HUCTW organizer Bill Jaeger said.

The University has yet to hear a formal proposal from the two unions.

“The University has not received a formal request from the union along these lines, and with that is not in a position to comment,” University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an emailed statement.

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

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.

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