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On Eve of Contract Negotiations, Harvard Custodians Rally Against Their Own Union Leadership

Approximately 25 Harvard custodians rallied in Science Center Plaza Friday, asking the University to postpone the opening of negotiations with their union until intraunion conflicts are resolved.
Approximately 25 Harvard custodians rallied in Science Center Plaza Friday, asking the University to postpone the opening of negotiations with their union until intraunion conflicts are resolved. By Cara J. Chang
By Cara J. Chang and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

Approximately 25 Harvard custodians rallied in Science Center Plaza Friday, asking the University to postpone the opening of negotiations with their union — set for Wednesday — until intraunion conflicts are resolved.

The custodians alleged their union, Service Employees International Union 32BJ, is ignoring several concerns that some Bargaining Committee members are bringing forward on their behalf, particularly around the union’s health insurance plan. The rally-goers also asserted that the union is shutting out their elected Bargaining Committee from preparations for contract negotiations with Harvard.

Gerardo Zavala Alfaro, a custodian at Northwest Labs, said he felt a lack of transparency from union leadership around health care decisions.

“I am uniting with my colleagues because the health insurance that we are being offered is a scam,” he said. “There are many things it doesn’t cover, and there are a bunch of complexities in that insurance plan.”

Custodians at the rally circulated a petition demanding the union use Harvard’s contributions toward the 32BJ Health Benefits Fund for the “exclusive benefit of Harvard custodians.”

The petition alleges that Harvard workers’ health care contributions are funding union administrative expenses and the non-Harvard workers in 32BJ, which represents more than 175,000 employees primarily across the East Coast, according to the union’s website.

“We’re collecting signatures,” union shop steward Daniel C. Valderrama said. “We’re going to take some pictures that we’re gonna give to Harvard and show them that there’s an issue here and they cannot negotiate anything with the union until all members, we agree on something.”

The majority of the Bargaining Committee wanted to reopen the issue of health insurance, but multiple members were muted when they brought up an alternate health insurance proposal on an Oct. 1 Zoom call with union leadership, including the union’s attorney, Raul Garcia, and 32BJ Vice President Roxana L. Rivera, according to Valderrama, Law School custodian Henry A. Rodriguez, and Zavala Alfaro.

Rivera wrote in an emailed statement that 32BJ is “committed” to working with union members to reach “the strongest possible” contract with the University.

She added the 32BJ Health Benefits Fund covers 175,000 union members and is not subject to individual bargaining agreements.

“That said, it is one of the best insurance plans in the country, with no premiums or deductibles, including for a member’s spouse and dependents,” Rivera wrote.

Not all bargaining committee members support the push for a new health plan. Javier Rodriguez, a bargaining committee member working at the Medical School, said through a union translator that his coworkers haven’t voiced any complaints about health insurance. Helena Bandeira, a Bargaining Committee member who works at the Law School, said she also hasn’t heard complaints about health care.

But in an Oct. 1 email to Garcia, the union’s attorney, obtained by The Crimson, bargaining committee member José Rivera wrote that he was representing the “majority” of the committee in criticizing Garcia for “rude and unprofessional” conduct and dismissal of “bargaining issues that are of paramount importance to the unit members.”

“We were prepared to be strong advocates in the negotiations with Harvard University,” José Rivera wrote. “However, we were not aware that we also had to watch our backs from an official of our own union.”

In another email obtained by The Crimson, nine of the twelve bargaining committee members wrote to Harvard Director of Employee and Labor Relations Paul R. Curran on Oct. 4 asking him to postpone the first bargaining session scheduled for Oct. 13.

That same day, Garcia emailed the Bargaining Committee, writing the letter to Curran should be disregarded since it “was unauthorized by the Union.”

“Any such statement should only come from our Vice-President Roxana Rivera or me as Chief Negotiator,” Garcia wrote. “Paul Curran has confirmed this afternoon that Harvard University will begin negotiations with the Union on October 13.”

Two days later, on Oct. 6, Garcia also sent the Bargaining Committee documents titled “Bargaining Committee Ground Rules.” The ground rules state Bargaining Committee members cannot speak during negotiation sessions with Harvard without permission from union leadership or speak to the press about bargaining.

The Bargaining Committee sent another email to University negotiators Monday detailing their qualms with these rules.

Rodriguez, the Law School custodian, said union members will write to Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow about the intra-union conflict. He added they are also appealing to SEIU, the parent organization of 32BJ based in New York City.

“If I have to go down there, I’m going to go down there,” Rodriguez said. “I want to get these things fixed.”

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe contributed translation for this story.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meimeixu7.

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