By Lucy Caplan and Ian Kumekawa
As the economy continues to lose ground, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Harvard is not an ivory tower immune from the pressures of the market, and that the world’s largest university endowment provides only a limited amount of cushioning. As labor relations become increasingly turbid, unions and students alike search for effective and appropriate responses.
After it became common knowledge that Harvard’s endowment had taken an $8 million hit, the Crimson wrote an editorial which sought to put the situation in perspective. The article opened with: “Northeastern isn’t building a new dorm after all. MIT is slashing 10 to 15 percent of its spending. At Harvard, President Drew G. Faust wrote a letter.”
That letter, of November 10th, did much to assuage fears that the economic downturn would have a drastic effect on the quality of life on campus. The announcement stressed New England Husbandry rather than cutbacks. But times have changed at Harvard. With many departments being asked to cut 10-15% of their budgets none are naive enough to think that life at Harvard will go on unchanged at any level. Indeed, in the past two weeks, as universities like Johns Hopkins and Emory have announced substantial layoffs, Harvard has announced the layoff of fifty money managers. However, few would deny that labor has been put in an increasingly vulnerable position.
That some of the positions at Harvard may be in jeopardy of elimination is a legitimate source of worry. As the rhetoric constantly reminds us, what makes Harvard distinct and itself is neither the Neo-Georgian architecture nor the healthy endowment, but indeed the people. The university has a commitment to all of the members of its community, not just students and tenured professors.
The State of Labor Relations at Harvard
The fourth-largest employer in Massachusetts, Harvard counts over fifteen thousand people among its employees. Within this group, more than 4800 workers are members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), an independent union affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a national organization. HUCTW, which was founded in 1988, is notable in that it began as a self-organized union, not as a subset of a larger group. Staying true to this principle of self-organization, HUCTW members represent the union themselves in negotiations with Harvard instead of using outside lawyers or representatives. Rather than relying on the traditional model of filing grievances, HUCTW follows a more collaborative “problem-solving” approach.
HUCTW has been an active voice in addressing current economic concerns and their potential implications for workers. Over the past few months, HUCTW has published a series of three open letters on the economy. The first, published December 2, responds mainly to Drew Faust’s university-wide letter about the news about the declining value of the endowment. HUCTW acknowledges the uncertainty of the economic climate and of what Harvard’s response will need to be, but states clearly that “At the school level, the HUTCW message is that where spending needs to be reduced, we should look first at consulting, travel and catering budgets…cuts in labor costs – by reducing staffing or any other means – should be a last resort.” The two subsequent open letters, published on December 22 and February 9, echo this sentiment, emphasizing that layoffs should be Harvard’s last choice for budget cuts.
HUCTW also suggests a postponement of major capital projects as a means of reducing costs. Specifically, the open letters urge the university to delay development in Allston. Harvard’s current position on Allston appears to have mixed intentions. On December 26, 2008, the university purchased a parcel of land in Allston from the Brookline Machine Company at a price of nearly two million dollars. The timing of this decision raised a considerable concern within the Harvard community, and was augmented by the fact that the property does not have any immediate use.
Conversely, however, Harvard has indicated in more vague terms that it will slow development in Allston as a response to the economic climate. In her February 18 letter to the community, President Faust wrote that construction on the new science complex will move at a slower pace. She also stated that “although long-term planning for other Allston development will continue, it will occur at a slower pace and our broader plans for developing the Allston campus are delayed.” Delays in Allston, of course, present a whole range of potential problems in terms of how they will affect residents. (See “Allston: The State of Play in 2009″)
Finally, HUCTW’s open letters call for more transparency in how much and what information Harvard makes available to the union and the public. The first open letter states, “Perhaps the most important push from HUCTW will be for more transparency and collaboration in financial decision-making at all levels of the University.” In order for unions and workers to negotiate effectively, it is vitally important that the university provide them with adequate information. Other members of the university community, from faculty to students to neighbors, also need sufficient information if they are to understand Harvard’s financial choices.
A Need for Greater Transparency
A lack of financial transparency is not unique to Harvard. In fact, virtually all colleges suffer from a lack of transparency, especially with respect to endowments. February’s Responsible Endowment Conference, a two-day event co-hosted by SLAM and Yale’s Responsible Endowment Project, highlighted the fact that Harvard, like most of its peer institution, provides little transparency with respect to investments of endowment funds.
Though widespread layoffs have not become a reality thus far, the threat of layoffs is very real to many Harvard workers. Certain changes in the Harvard workplace violate the terms of union agreements. Harvard College Libraries earlier this year announced that it would discontinue “reclassifications” – its term for promotions – because of the hiring freeze. Given that the particular requirements of a job can still change, however, this discontinuation is unfair to workers. It ignores the terms of the HUCTW Agreement, which states that, “Whenever there have been substantive, measurable changes in a job’s content and responsibilities, a reclassification review should be initiated.”
Additionally, HUCTW representative Geoff Carens wrote to Perspective in an email that “Clerical workers continue to receive communications from management, many of which hint strongly about the prospect of layoffs.” A letter distributed to Harvard College Library staff on January 20, for example, states, “For every type of budget reduction that might be proposed, there are people affected in some measure.” The same letter later states, “We must rethink what it will take to balance [our] priorities with fewer dollars, and therefore, with fewer people.” Carens accurately described these letters as “ominous” in their language. While such assertions do not refer to layoffs by name, they are certainly a legitimate cause for concern among workers.
The Student Response
In a cramped basement room in Phillips Brooks House on a recent Monday night, nearly twenty members of the Student Labor Action Movement assembled for their weekly meeting. The discussion centered mainly around the group’s No-Layoffs Campaign, facilitated in large part by updates from two union reps and a quorum of students who had just returned from posing questions to President Faust at a recent UC-sponsored event.
The Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) was founded in 2005 largely as an effort to support janitors on campus, many of whom had wages below $7 per hour. Through a variety of efforts including two massive protests, SLAM was able to help win the janitors a $5 wage increase over 5 years as well as improved benefits. Over the next two years, SLAM would shift its support behind Harvard’s security workers who eventually, after both protests and a hunger strike which received international press, were able to form a union and negotiate an acceptable contract with their employer, AlliedBarton.
But back in the basement of PBH, the mood reflected the grim realities of the present, not the successes of the past. Why, it was asked, were extravagant university-sponsored events like the Freshman Formal still going forward while workers faced legitimate fear over job security?
As Geoff Carens, representative for the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), and Ed Childs, chief steward of UNITE HERE 26 both related recent developments including layoffs, policy changes, and cases of discrimination, the atmosphere became increasingly serious.
SLAM leader Alyssa Aguilera says that the organization’s plan is to “talk to workers and do our best to stand in solidarity with them. As students we understand that we have a privileged position within the university and hope to use that position to put pressure on our administration to resist layoffs.”
Indeed, in December the movement submitted a letter to President Faust cautioning the administration against laying off employees. Additionally, the group is seeking to recruit students for a union-organized protest in early March.
SLAM is well-placed to play an important role on campus, and given the economic state of affairs, its existence is becoming increasingly important and relevant. The organization is perhaps the most obvious link between students and workers on campus and as such has the potential to essentially set the tone of the dialogue between those two groups.
The movement already functions as a voice box for the labor community within the student body. The general meeting of the Harvard College Democrats on February 3 saw SLAM members including Aguilera present alongside with union representatives to the assembled Democrats, spreading the news of layoffs and urging solidarity within the Harvard community.
At the meeting, amid a generally supportive atmosphere, SLAM members urged students to use Obama as a rallying point for a fight against layoffs and intolerance. They pushed for organizations like the Democrats take a more concrete role in drafting the policy that will characterize the student input on determining how budget cuts will go forward. SLAM members met with BGLTSA just days later.
SLAM seems to understand the value of facilitating understanding, and more generally speaking, just spreading the word about the state of labor relations at Harvard. Through increased transparency, there will inevitably be a greater understanding and appreciation of labor at the university. This, in turn, may well be instrumental in sowing the seeds of activism, especially within the undergraduate community.
The Case of Helen Boos
Against the backdrop of extensive budget cuts and a growing tide of layoffs, the case of Helen Boos has attracted attention and launched an outcry from both unions and student activists.
SLAM and Harvard Unions claim that Ms. Boos, who worked in the Loeb Design Library, was unfairly fired in the middle of last month. In response, the organizations have motivated Harvard employees, students, and alumni to send emails of protest to the university’s director of labor relations, Bill Murphy.
Ms. Boos was hired and began work at the Design Library just before the institution of the general hiring freeze. As the proposed 10% budget cuts were unveiled, HUCTW claims that Ms. Boos’ supervisor became “extremely critical” of her work, and her training became “haphazard and limited.”
By contract, either Harvard employee or supervisor can terminate the relationship within a first three-month probationary period. However, according to HUCTW, management did not provide the “regular and effective communication” that is intended and expected to ensure success of new hires.
During the approximately two months that Ms. Boos was in Harvard’s employ, the Thanksgiving and Midwinter Holiday breaks took place. Additionally, Ms. Boos’ supervisor took an extra three-week vacation. Upon termination, Harvard immediately cut off Ms. Boos’ health benefits without even notifying her, despite the fact that her supervisor and others at the School of Design knew that she had upcoming medical appointments.
The case of Helen Boos has raised significant questions about the transparency with which Harvard is dealing with its increasingly comprehensive cutbacks, and more generally about the way Harvard comports itself as an employer.