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October 6, 2020, 10:50 a.m. — I sit uncomfortably perched on the top steps of Widener Library, large J.P. Licks coffee in hand, and begin to observe my surroundings.
Golden light speckles the short green grass. It’s a Tuesday, but it feels like a Saturday afternoon: one of those languid mornings in normal times, during which students retreat into their dorms to nurse their hangovers. With the regular stampede of students racing from class to class stripped away, my attention is immediately drawn to the countless staff members who sustain the Harvard organism, clearing pathways, delivering mail, working construction.
My laptop automatically connects to the Harvard Secure Wi-Fi — a strange reminder that this was once somewhere I belonged. But that moment of “connection” is fleeting as I realize there is no bathroom in sight that I would be permitted to use.
While seeking one, a flicker of motion catches my eye. A familiar sight, made foreign by these solitary times: Armed with megaphones and blue-masks, a crowd has gathered at the base of the John Harvard statue.
Navigating a socially distanced sea of crimson and purple shirts as the group disperses, I find myself speaking with Dan Nicolai — the district leader of the Service Employees International Union, which represents over 700 of Harvard’s janitors and 300 security officers. Dressed in an SEIU hoodie, Nicolai explains that today was the union's first day of contract negotiations with Securitas, the company through which Harvard employs its security guards. They are seeking to extend their four-year contract, which expires November 15, by one year. This interim extension would postpone longer-term agreements until next year, allowing a new contract to be developed under more stable conditions.
Nicolai is cautiously hopeful. Harvard hasn’t agreed to anything yet, but they haven’t said no yet either: He’s organized this kick-off rally, hoping to push the cause over the edge.
He introduces me to Doris Landaverde, Luis Toribio, and Helena Bandeira, the three union representatives who will be sitting across from the University at the negotiating table. The issues are personal for them. Landaverde, who made news in the spring for displaying COVID-19 symptoms after disinfecting dormitories, says they are “fighting” for their contract, in order to protect their health and feed their families.
The pandemic gives new and pressing importance to contract negotiations, presenting what former National Labor Relations Board chair Wilma B. Liebman has called the rise of a “whole host of issues” that unions have never had to negotiate before, pertaining to health and safety precautions such as personal protective equipment and social distancing measures. At Harvard, financial woes and a reduced number of students living on campus generates uncertainty and the ever-looming prospect of furloughs.
The effect of instability is perceived ambivalence: The feeling that the University says it shares the workers’ concerns, but doesn’t. At the same time, pre-pandemic interests — secure wages, health care, retirement plans, and paid time off — remain priorities for the union.
These are life or death matters being negotiated for integral members of our community. Many of these campus security officers and janitors are some of the most constant figures in our day-to-day lives, fostering continuity amongst a changing student body. Furthermore, they, perhaps more than anyone, force Harvard to live up to the values it supposedly holds most dear.
The College, for example, believes in striving “toward a more just, fair, and promising world.” The Medical School believes in “alleviating suffering and improving health and well-being.” How the University treats their workers is a crucial demonstration of their ideals. Fair contracts are not an added bonus; they are essential to the University’s moral being.
Moreover, it should not escape our notice that many of these union workers themselves are role models for civil engagement — at the forefront of the pursuit of justice, leading anti-racist labor organizing this summer.
Returning to my nest on Widener steps, I open my computer to an email about negotiations of a different kind.
The Chair of the Undergraduate Council Finance Committee writes, “We just got the budget - a total of $500k for the whole council! I am so excited to say that I was the UC negotiator & set aside $430k for clubs totally during negotiations… Last week, we gave out about $3,200. We normally do about $15,000. apply apply apply! policy guide restrictions will be changing to allow you all more money so please please apply.”
The juxtaposition of life-defining negotiations for staff members and their families and the Undergraduate Council practically begging Club leaders to ask for money — money for events that cannot even be held in person — serves as a disheartening reminder of Harvard’s often misguided priorities: how the ways it distributes its vast resources, subliminally teaches us students opposing values.
After five hours, I pack my bag, toss my coffee cup, and prepare for my departure. These few hours have reminded me how central Harvard’s campus is to communal life. The John Harvard alone statue critically facilitates important connections between the students, staff, and local community members. The statue may feel like an empty symbol for those of us studying from afar, but for custodial staff it is a place of activism, a place of their livelihood.
Even more, my return to the Yard illuminates that achieving the kind of world we aspire towards begins with manifesting these ideals within our own community.
I do not need student organizations, funded by the University, to buy me a free Patagonia nor do I need them to send me food via Uber eats. I need the University to put its money where its mouth is, to teach me about justice by demonstrating that it is possible, to show that it values the health and well-being of all of its community members equally — to stop falling short of this.
Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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