‘A Recipe for Instability’ As Multiple Harvard Unions to Seek Contracts Amid Pandemic

The University’s contracts with four of those unions will expire later this year, forcing Harvard to renegotiate the agreements nearly simultaneously during a global pandemic.
By Davit Antonyan and Callia A. Chuang

By Emily H. Nguyen

After the novel coronavirus pandemic upended Harvard’s operations this spring, the University faces a host of unprecedented challenges, trying to prevent a public health crisis on its campus, vastly altering its academic systems, and recouping financial hits.

But each of those issues affects not only Harvard’s students, faculty, and administrators, but also its waged employees, from lab workers and teaching fellows to custodians and faculty assistants. And on top of the troubles, Harvard must also navigate an unusual task: Over the course of this year, it is scheduled to negotiate five separate contracts with five of its labor unions.

The University’s contracts with four of those unions — Service Employees International Union, Harvard University Security, Parking and Museum Guards’ Union, Harvard University Police Association, and the Area Trades Council — will expire later this year, forcing Harvard to renegotiate the agreements nearly simultaneously. The University’s contract with HUSPMGU is set to expire June 30, while contracts with SEIU and HUPA will expire in November, and ATC’s contract will end in December.

The Harvard University Police Association union’s contract is set to expire in late November, while the department is also undergoing an internal review of climate and culture.
The Harvard University Police Association union’s contract is set to expire in late November, while the department is also undergoing an internal review of climate and culture. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

On top of those negotiations, Harvard and its graduate student union are still trying to reach their first contract, more than a year after the union first formed.

After months of stalemate, the student union and the University are beginning to approach a consensus. Bargaining committee member Lee Kennedy-Shaffer wrote in an update to union members May 23 that Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers is currently negotiating a one-year contract that would go into effect July 1.

According to some experts — like former National Labor Relations Board chair William B. Gould IV — such a bulk of negotiations on the horizon will present a challenge for Harvard.

“Bargaining is never easy. When you’re dealing with a lot of different unions at different bargaining tables, that’s — as a general proposition, having nothing to do with Harvard — a recipe for instability,” Gould said.

‘A Whole Host of Issues’

When Harvard and the unions come to the bargaining table — virtually or otherwise — this year, the global pandemic will likely cast their negotiations over health and safety in a new light.

The sides will likely consider entirely new types of contract provisions, according to Gould.

“Anything involving health and safety is vital to both employees and employers,” Gould said. “They’re going to be important and they’re going to be complex.”

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced in late April that Harvard will be open for fall 2020 in some capacity. The University’s various schools must decide by July what the format of that semester will look like, weighing whether and how students will move back to campus and if classes and student organizations will meet in person or online.

Such considerations raise questions about safety measures for the University’s workers who may return to campus in the fall. Over the course of the spring semester, Harvard workers expressed concerns about public health risks they faced working on campus day in and day out.

In early April, Harvard’s custodians reported a lack of proper protective equipment; days later, Quincy House dining staff stopped working after two of their co-workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Former chair of the National Labor Relations Board Wilma B. Liebman predicts that reopening campus would give rise to a “whole host of issues” that unions have never before had to consider in contract negotiation, such testing, social distancing measures, protective gear, and job sharing plans.

32BJ — a regional branch of SEIU that represents the Harvard Arboretum’s employees, security guards, and custodians — has two contracts set to expire in November: one with the University for custodians, and one with a contractor, Securitas, for security guards.

In the initial phase of the pandemic, the main concerns for custodians were finding adequate access to protective gear and maintaining proper social distancing measures, 32BJ Vice President Roxana Rivera said.

“The issue when the pandemic first hit was the issue of safety of our members,” Rivera said. “So we engaged with the University just in regards to the issue of people having personal protective equipment as well as that there were social distancing protocols in place.”

HGSU-UAW bargaining committee member Cory W. McCartan, meanwhile, said he fears that student research workers may face unsafe working conditions once Harvard’s labs reopen. HGSU-UAW has encouraged the University to develop a new system for workers to anonymously report health and safety concerns in labs.

“Harvard has talked about the approach they’re going to take to ensure safety and some of those occurred, but there’s still problems as long as you have people in enclosed space, sharing the same space,” McCartan said.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this story.

A ‘Huge Hardship’

The pandemic poses not only a public health crisis for the University, but also a financial one: a circumstance which union leaders fear could put workers’ employment in jeopardy.

Facing an estimated shortfall of $415 million this fiscal year, the University instituted hiring and salary freezes in mid-April.

In light of the financial woes, administrators told staff and faculty in that same announcement that Harvard was considering furloughing and laying off some workers. The University has yet to announce definitively whether it will take the measure; but by now, many employees say they feel anxious and uncertain about the prospects of their continued employment at Harvard.

According to Carrie Barbash, who serves as president of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, many HUCTW members feel that as the University decides how to resume campus operations following the summer, their livelihood hangs in the balance.

“The thing that I would say we're most still concerned about is the potential of layoffs or furloughs,” Barbash said in early May. “We'd like to find a way to avoid that altogether.”

Though securing their new contract by November 15 is an important goal for 32BJ, Rivera said, potential job losses form an even more pressing concern.

“The most concerning thing we are dealing with right now is that Harvard has now announced that they are considering furloughs, unpaid furloughs,” Rivera said. “It's a huge hardship for folks to face unpaid layoffs by the University.”

‘Incredibly Uncertain’

In March, the University decided to finish the semester with remote instruction, sending most students off campus after spring break. While Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay said in April that FAS has yet to decide whether the fall 2020 semester will look the same as spring, University faculty have nonetheless been preparing to potentially teach classes online.

Liebman said she believes compensation will become an even more critical provision in contract negotiations — especially for those who typically work on campus — if Harvard decides to deliver instruction remotely next semester.

“I can’t imagine that that’s not going to become an issue for those unions, to get some kind of economic security for their members,” Liebman said.

After Harvard announced it would guarantee pay and benefits to employees who were able to work but unable to report to campus due to the pandemic, 32BJ president Rivera said the union’s priorities shifted to guaranteeing the same protections for contracted workers — employees that are not employed full-time with the University but through a third-party contractor.

“We also had to advocate with the University that that policy cover the contracted workers because initially when they announced the stay-at-home policy with pay, it did not include the contracted workers on campus,” she said.

The most recent University policy extended those protections to all employees through June 28.

HGSU-UAW, meanwhile, recently reached agreements with the University regarding compensation, including a 2.8 percent raise for salaried student workers next year and a $16 to $17 minimum hourly pay rate, according to Kennedy-Shaffer.

“Our priority is to secure protections for student workers in the midst of a pandemic and an economic collapse for the year ahead, and to establish a strong foundation on which to build in the future,” Kennedy-Shaffer wrote.

Still, some union members remain concerned about compensation for international student workers who must remain in their home country during the pandemic and helping Teaching Fellows teach more effectively over Zoom if Harvard continues online.

Harvard recently proposed shortening the term of its contract with HGSU-UAW to one year due to the uncertain situation of Harvard’s finances. If the union and the University agree to the proposal, the first contract would expire in 2021, promptly bringing the two parties back to the bargaining table.

‘Extraordinary Times’

As Harvard negotiates contracts with its unions this year, bargaining — like teaching — may also take an online form if the coronavirus pandemic continues to necessitate social distancing.

Harvard and its graduate student union have already engaged in three remote bargaining sessions using the online platform Zoom.

But McCartan said the platform has certain limitations compared to in-person bargaining.

“I do think there’s advantages to being in-person in that you can have physical documents to look at, you can step out into the hallway for a quick conversation if you need to — stuff like that that’s just not possible when you have this clunky Zoom setup,” McCartan said.

“At the end of the day, bargaining is just people talking to each other and Zoom allows that to happen, so the core work happens regardless, and we're making it work as best we can,” he added.

Liebman said labor agencies such as the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and European Works Councils have also been conducting negotiations over Zoom, and the platform appears to be working effectively.

“It may be second-best, but it certainly does provide a forum and people are learning how to adjust to it,” Liebman said.

Further, though the novel coronavirus has presented unprecedented challenges for unions and universities alike, some say the outbreak could have an unexpected positive side effect: it may facilitate cooperation between Harvard and its unions during bargaining.

Earlier this month, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Andrew S. Levin said in a video posted to Twitter that remote negotiations present an opportunity for HGSU-UAW and Harvard to engage in “marathon bargaining” and finally settle on a contract.

Liebman said the pandemic could lead to “interest-based bargaining” — a more mutualistic format in which parties focus on problem-solving and reaching common ground.

“There is a shared mutual interest and concern that hangs over these negotiations that might not have been as obvious beforehand,” Liebman said.

McCartan also stressed the importance of cooperation during negotiations amid a global crisis.

“When you’re bargaining, you don’t bargain in a void,” McCartan said. “You obviously have to understand what the other party’s capabilities, limitations, and approach are.”

Still, Art, Film, and Visual Studies Ph.D. candidate and union member Xavier Nueno said he thinks Harvard should sign a contract with its graduate students to show its commitment to the “intellectual community.”

“These are extraordinary times, and they call for extraordinary leadership,” Nueno said.

‘Tangible Outcomes’

Despite the constraints and hardships COVID-19 poses on a temporary basis, its alterations to contract negotiations will likely have a lasting impact.

Protections for unionized employees only last as long as the contract — and if two sides fail to settle or renew their contracts, there is no guarantee that previous agreements from before the pandemic will be extended.

As the public health crisis unfolds, Rivera said 32BJ is seeking to ensure the University does not overlook protections for its workers as it deals with various economic and academic pitfalls.

“As we looked into going into negotiations this year, we did not expect to be faced with the unprecedented crisis that we're in right now,” she said. “That will have an impact into the negotiations that we will be having going forward.”

Rivera added that reaching a contract that continues to secure wages, health care, retirement plans, and paid time off for members remains a priority in negotiations.

She also said sustained wage increases over the upcoming years and workers’ safety assurances will be essential, adding that the COVID-19 outbreak brought those needs to the fore.

“We're going to do all that we can do to ensure that we protect everything that we've fought for, and that we lift up the stories of the janitors at Harvard, who are the frontline workers that have been risking themselves,” Rivera said.

While HGSU-UAW’s contract will expire in just a year’s time, McCartan said achieving a first contract would serve as a major milestone and could facilitate bargaining significantly during renegotiation.

“The biggest difference is not everything is on the table anymore and that you already have a contract to work from, and rather than having to reach agreement on language from scratch on every single article, you can focus on the articles that need to be tweaked,” McCartan said.

Ultimately, the task of negotiating five different contracts against the backdrop of a global pandemic may provide new insights into the ethos of the University as a whole, according to Liebman.

“Some have said that companies or employers can come out of this crisis either as heroes or villains,” Liebman said. “This is an opportunity for Harvard and other universities to really come out of this crisis as heroes in terms of their labor relations, to take the high road and really just seriously address these critical worker concerns and economic concerns.”

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at callia.chuang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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