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Arnold Arboretum Workers Without Contract Amid Compensation Impasse

Workers at the Arnold Arboretum are without a contract as their union continues negotiations with Harvard for higher pay.
Workers at the Arnold Arboretum are without a contract as their union continues negotiations with Harvard for higher pay. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writer

Arnold Arboretum workers are without a contract after their previous agreement with the University expired on Nov. 15, with both sides failing to come to a consensus on compensation after roughly three months of negotiations.

Since negotiations began in August, Harvard and the Service Employees International Union 32BJ have met six times — during which time the union’s previous 2019 contract expired. The University has tentatively agreed to additional time off, clothing stipend money, and the establishment of a joint labor-management committee.

The Arboretum has two dozen union-represented arborists, gardeners, and horticulturists who maintain 281 acres of University-operated land in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston. In addition to arboretum workers, 32BJ SEIU also represents campus security guards and custodians.

At a Nov. 16 rally organized by 32BJ SEIU, workers said the requests were primarily quality-of-life improvements. The union has planned an additional rally for Dec. 2.

“I would like to see there to be enough financial improvements for the crew that offer us a bit more of a buffer against some of the stuff we’re up against in this area in terms of rent,” said Benjamin Kirby, an arboretum arborist and union shop steward.

Kirby said a “very unified” crew came to the decision to continue bargaining past the deadline, adding that the workers were inspired to continue negotiating by the recent wave of union wins across the country.

“We really care about it so much, and appreciate being able to work there,” Kirby said.

In an email to Arboretum workers Nov. 16, Harvard Director of Labor Relations and Employee Relations Paul R. Curran acknowledged the rally and said the two sides are still apart in several key areas.

“With these tentative agreements having been reached, the focus of the negotiations is on compensation, where the parties have yet to reach an agreement,” Curran wrote.

The University’s last offer includes a 16.15 percent total wage increase over the span of four years, including a 4.9 percent increase in the first year in addition to a $1,000 stipend. He said the proposal took into account “comparative market factors” and “total compensation and benefits package.”

Kirby said the offer does not meet the workers’ needs.

“We’re not at a point yet where we think that the proposals from the other side have made us feel like we would be making enough progress to feel like it’s been worth the struggle,” Kirby said.

Harvard's most recent offer to Arboretum workers includes a 16.15 percent wage increase over four years.
Harvard's most recent offer to Arboretum workers includes a 16.15 percent wage increase over four years. By Jina H. Choe

“We do still believe that we can make progress,” said Roxana Rivera, assistant to the president of 32BJ SEIU.

Curran also that the University's proposal is comparable to the May 11 agreement with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, in which both sides agreed to a combined 17.9 percent total raise over four years. He said the 32BJ SEIU had rejected a proposal to bargain with a third-party mediator in October.

Union spokesperson Franklin Soults wrote in an emailed statement that the negotiations do not yet require a mediator.

“A complete breakdown in talks is the only reason that a mediator would be required,” he wrote.

HUCTW’s negotiations, which stretched for 13 months, also stalled over compensation, as the union argued previous proposals did not sufficiently account for post-pandemic inflation.

“There has been a strong demand from workers to see more of a wage increase in the early years of a contract — the first and second year of an agreement, primarily in the first year — just to make up for how they were set back,” Rivera said.

As they continue to work without contract, Rivera said arboretum employees will not have all of the same protections they have under a current contract, but added they are willing to wait for a better offer.

The 2019 agreement’s working conditions will remain in place until a new contract is reached, though some key protections, including mandatory arbitration, are no longer in effect.

“There is risk here in that workers are working without a contract,” Rivera said. “But again, it’s because they want to show how serious they are about really trying to achieve the best contract that recognizes the work that they do on a daily basis at the Arboretum.”

Correction: November 30, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Arnold Arboretum sits on University-owned land. In fact, the land is owned by the City of Boston and granted to Harvard on a 1,000-year lease.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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