Harvard's Injustice Toward its Workers

04/01/2013 03:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

Behind the 375-year-old ivy-covered walls of Harvard's buildings, students, faculty and staff are constantly exploring new frontiers, pushing limits of understanding the world, and discovering new paradigms for advancing social change. Yet, since July 1, 2012, The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), a 4,600 member union comprised of non-faculty staff across Harvard University's campus, has been operating without a contract. For a university that insists on its dedication to social justice, something is missing.

Harvard responded to the 2008-2009 economic downturn and the impact on its endowment by laying off staff while asking employees to maintain the same amount of work. One labor organizer put it this way in a recent op-ed in the university's newspaper: "Staff members (union and non-union) have been doing the jobs of departed colleagues on top of their own work for more than three years. Members have found creative ways to do more with less, as well as working countless hours of uncompensated extra time, in an effort at good citizenship." And now that Harvard's position has improved, HUCTW is fighting to be rewarded for many of the sacrifices they made during the recession, sacrifices which can best be summed up in the words of workers who spoke to The Crimson:

"As a single mother of four, that doesn't even cover bus fare for the week. When my children aren't feeling well, I've found myself wondering, 'Does he/she really need to see the doctor?' Sometimes I am choosing between groceries and co-pays."

"I have had to decide between using my dwindling savings or not paying a bill so that my family could buy food for another week. We don't ever buy meat."

"As a mother, I want to be able to do more. Maybe buy a ticket to a museum or some clothes that didn't come from a second-hand store. Sometimes I feel like I've failed them, and I'm just not used to that."

For months now, HUCTW and the University have been in negotiation talks to attempt to agree upon a contract after their previous one expired in July. So far, agreements have been stalling. On February 28, for the first time in Harvard's storied history, an estimated 750 union members, concerned students, faculty, and local faith leaders packed into the university's historic Memorial Church to demonstrate their support for a fair contract for Harvard's staff. During the rally, supporters sung, listened to workers' stories, and read statements of support.

While the general tone of the rally remained upbeat and collegial ("kindness and respect" is HUCTW's mantra), union members were not afraid to speak their mind. One organizer made it plain that HUCTW was striving to maintain a middle-class way of life for its members: "When you have to take our calculator to see if you can afford guitar lessons for your kid, that's not middle class."

Students were very vocal in their support of HUCTW's fight for real wage increase and affordable health care. Representatives from the Harvard's Student Labor Action Movement, the Harvard Divinity School's Interfaith Caucus for Worker Justice, and the Harvard Kennedy School's Progressive Caucus all read statements of support encouraging the university to play fair in contract negotiations. Additionally, John Bach, a Quaker religious leader, read a rousing statement of solidarity that many local clergy signed.

The statement from Harvard Divinity School's Interfaith Caucus for Worker Justice, an interfaith team of graduate students, places the issue of fair compensation in a broader context of social justice:

"Labor justice is not only about balancing budgets or signing paychecks: labor justice is a critical moral issue for our time, and our cultural traditions compel us to get involved. Moreover, at ICWJ, we believe the fight for labor justice begins in our own backyard. As students, we know we benefit from the work, passion, and dedication of Harvard's hard-working support staff."

Among the many demands being made, organizers are asking for a better health care plan, a raise in wages, and a fair contract that recognizes staff's contribution to life at Harvard.

If you think holding a rally in a church while remaining persistent and respectful sounds like an innovative approach to labor, you'd be right. Yet, that's nothing new in HUCTW's history. In fact, HUCTW has been continually pushing limits and boundaries since its founding in 1988, when it came up with the clever and innovative slogan, "We can't eat prestige." As a strong proponent for cooperation between workers and administration, HUCTW eschews the confrontational approach so often favored by American labor. HUCTW director, Bill Jaeger, has made it clear that "true partnership has to be a two-way street," and that it is about time that Harvard University live up to its side of the bargain by giving its staff the pay and respect it deserves.

America needs more organizations like HUCTW and individuals willing to push boundaries. If we want to build a society based on equality, cooperation, and abundance, we need to hold those in power to high standards, and Harvard University with its $32 billion endowment seems like a good place to start.

This piece was co-written with Michael Casey W. Woolf.