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Interim President Garber’s Uneasy Relationship With Harvard Unions

Harvard's unions and interim President Alan M. Garber '76 have frequently clashed during his tenure as an administrator at the University.
Harvard's unions and interim President Alan M. Garber '76 have frequently clashed during his tenure as an administrator at the University. By Hannah S. Lee, Claire Yuan, and Frank S. Zhou
By Aran Sonnad-Joshi and Sheerea X. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

When longtime Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 suddenly became interim president earlier this month, the powerful but largely invisible administrator was unfamiliar to most Harvard affiliates.

But not Harvard’s unions. They know Garber well — and they can’t stand him.

In his 12-year tenure as provost, Garber served not only as Harvard’s chief academic officer but also oversaw union issues on campus in collaboration with the Harvard Office of Labor Relations, led by Paul R. Curran.

Though Garber’s extensive familiarity with Harvard made him a safe choice to lead a University in crisis, his elevation to the presidency has many of Harvard’s workers wary.

In 2018, when Garber was rumored to be a presidential candidate, labor activists led a campaign against his possible selection, sending more than 100 emails to members of the presidential search committee to advocate against Garber.

Members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers remember the opposition they were faced with in 2018 when graduate students attempted to unionize and negotiate with Harvard for the first time.

Brandon J. Mancilla, who served as the first president of HGSU-UAW, said Garber staunchly opposed labor initiatives and led University efforts to prevent graduate student workers from unionizing.

“Garber’s role during that time was basically leading the most vicious anti-union campaign that we’ve seen in grad worker unionization,” Mancilla said.

The University’s efforts to prevent graduate student unionization succeeded, and HGSU-UAW lost its first union election in Nov. 2016.

But lawyers for the union challenged the outcome, sparking months of legal battles.

More than one year later, the National Labor Relations Board found that Harvard excluded eligible voters from the election and mandated they hold a second election.

This time, in April 2018, the union won — and HGSU-UAW was born.

Mancilla alleged that the NLRB reversal was the result of a “vicious anti-campaign” by Garber and Curran.

“A Trump labor board — that was how bad it was, how egregious the violation was — ended up ruling in our favor, to order a second election,” Mancilla said.

But even as the union earned the right to exist at Harvard, it was still met with fierce resistance from Garber and an intentionally delayed negotiation process by the University, Mancilla said.

“They slow-walk the entire process and Garber is the chief reason why,” he said. “The Office of Labor and Employment Relations can have whatever opinion it has, but in the end, they report to higher administration, and the position of the higher administration is the position that they will take.”

Garber was the top administrator overseeing negotiations between Harvard and HGSU-UAW during those 2018 negotiations.

Now, Garber has ascended further through Harvard’s administrative ranks, serving as interim president while still holding onto his role as provost.

Koby Ljunggren, a former president of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers and a current staff organizer for the Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union, highlighted Garber’s expanded power over students and staff at the University in his dual roles as interim president and provost.

“He’s not just involved in the student labor end of things,” Ljunggren said. “Now, Garber has his hand in — or will have his hand in — all sorts of other employee issues that come up with the other campus unions, such as the clerical and technical workers, staff, custodians, dining service workers, the trade council.”

“All of these groups now fall under — or could fall under — the umbrella of his office,” they said.

Syd D. Sanders ’25 — a student organizer for HUWU and a member of its bargaining committee — also expressed concern about Garber’s new role at Harvard.

“His position in his email communications and the entire scenario of him stepping up to replace Claudine Gay makes me worried,” Sanders said. “It’s not going to stop any of us, but it is going to make it harder.”

Sanders pointed to specific language from Garber’s communications to Harvard affiliates as evidence of his anti-union attitude.

In an April 2018 email to Harvard affiliates, Garber wrote that students, faculty, and administrators have “long worked together” to “improve student services” on campus.

“Their collaborative efforts began well before paid organizers from the United Auto Workers came to our campuses,” he wrote.

One year later, in another email to Harvard affiliates about HGSU-UAW, Garber wrote that the administration was “concerned that some of the union’s proposals would not be effective and might even have unintended consequences.”

Sanders said Garber’s emails used “every union-busting talking point in the book.”

“It’s ‘the union is not the students.’ It's ‘people from outside coming to make you give up your paycheck and make a decision for you,’ which is obviously not what a union is,” Sanders said.

“It’s ridiculous,” he added.

Some Harvard workers also criticized Garber and the University administration for failing to protect and support workers on campus during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Doris R. Landaverde, a custodian at the University, said she was “disappointed” by Garber and the administrations’ lack of protection for workers.

In particular, Landaverde said the University did a “poor” job providing essential campus workers with the proper personal protective equipment, including masks.

“We leave last,” Landaverde said. “We clean, we keep everything organized, but I feel like they [don’t] give the respect for custodians for all the work we do.”

Garon C. “Gary” Davis, a chef in the Adams dining hall, also highlighted the lack of respect afforded to workers by administrators.

“I think it’s a great job, but sometimes they think that these guys consider you a number and you're not treated as the person that you should be,” Davis said.

Despite Garber’s historical friction with labor initiatives on campus, some union representatives expressed acceptance or indifference to his new post at the helm of the University, committing to continue their union activities as usual.

Mancilla said that he thought there shouldn’t be “any difference in him serving as provost versus him serving as president or interim president.”

HGSU-UAW President Bailey A. Plaman said Garber’s appointment as interim president will not change the union’s approach to bargaining.

“Whoever the University leadership is, we’re going to have the same approach to bargaining as we would with President Gay,” Plaman said. “We’re trying to figure out what issues matter to our members and organizing so that we’re as prepared as we can be.”

“Negotiations is negotiations,” Davis said. “No matter who you negotiate with, whether you’re looking for a job or this whole union going against the university, it’s the same thing.”

Davis said that while workers are “fighting to get something better” for their families and themselves, the other side wants to “give up less.”

“They can keep more money in their bank, whereas we’re trying to put money in our bank,” he said.

—Staff writer Aran Sonnad-Joshi can be reached at aran.sonnad-joshi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @asonnadjoshi.

—Staff writer Sheerea X. Yu can be reached at sheerea.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @_shuhree_.

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