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The Podium

A long road for unions

On May 17, Harvard’s largest staff union — the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, whose 4,600 members’ jobs range from cleaning the monkey cages in research labs to assisting Harvard faculty members — celebrated its 25th anniversary. Balloons danced energetically on their strings around Harvard’s campus as staff members enjoyed cookies and lemonade on the gusty, sunny day.

The union’s formation 25 years ago was historic in higher education and white-collar unionization and is notable in its own right. But union’s first quarter-century is particularly noteworthy because the union has come of age in an era that has seen the decline of both organized labor and the middle class.

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Union membership around the nation is dramatically lower than it was at the time of HUCTW’s founding, and middle class wages have stagnated. While the rich have gotten richer, the middle class has been squeezed. The past 10 years have been so dismal that Pew has described them as “the lost decade of the middle class.”

As times have gotten worse for American labor and the middle class, HUCTW has experienced the shift acutely. The union’s most recent contract negotiations with Harvard provide a case in point. The contract negotiations, which I watched unfold as an intern with HUCTW (and a recent graduate of Harvard College), revealed that it is not only profit-driven, or economically struggling, or historically conservative businesses whose workers have to fight, hard, for wage growth.

Harvard is a not-for-profit, flush with cash (at last count, its endowment was $32 billion), liberal in leanings, and bestowed with an active and established union. Yet the tides have turned such that even in this context, Harvard sought wage increases not much higher than the projected rate of inflation — increases that would provide little real wage growth for workers.

Many of HUCTW’s members, particularly those on the lower end of the pay spectrum, live on the thin line between poverty and enough. In the contract negotiations, HUCTW’s aim was to increase its members’ economic security and tip them closer to the middle class.

Before the anniversary celebration, the last time HUCTW’s members gathered outside, there was little reason to celebrate. It was February, snowy, and for the first time in the union’s history, workers were without a contract as the University and the union stalled in negotiations. Posters around protesting workers’ necks read, “Harvard, don’t leave us out in the cold.”

Negotiations proved so difficult in part because, relative to many, HUCTW’s members already have a leg up: they have jobs, with steady wages and benefits that include dental visits, access to professional development courses, and vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s — the hard earned results of 25 years of union footwork. As the nation then counted an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent (not including those who had given up looking for a job) and 46 million people in poverty, it was difficult for stably-employed people to explain that they needed still more to keep their heads above the waterline. (Months later, the situation is largely unimproved; the unemployment rate still hangs at 7.5 percent.)

But that America’s middle class is shrinking is a problem. If the middle class falters, the economy as a whole trips with it. As anyone who has seen “Downton Abbey,’’ or worse, “Les Misérables,’’ knows, rigid class differentiation is bad, not just for those on the losing end of the arrangement, but for society at large. Without supporting the middle, the whole social structure can collapse. It’s like pulling the keystone out of an arch.

“So here’s the big HUCTW idea on this issue,” Bill Jaeger, HUCTW’s director said in the midst of negotiations to a crowded Memorial Church, pews packed for a Union rally. “[T]he fact that real wage growth has disappeared from the American economy should be the problem that our Union and the University are trying to solve together. Not the excuse that Harvard administrators would use to leap into a race to the bottom.” The church filled with applause because the idea Jaeger articulated seemed to be one Harvard was resisting.

On April 2, more than eight months overdue, HUCTW members ratified a contract that gives them an average 3.4 percent salary increase over three years. The agreement is one of which Harvard and HUCTW are rightly both proud. I helped at a few of the voting stations around campus, and workers smiled as they slipped their ballots into the box. It had been a long wait.

The agreement and the relief of negotiations’ having ended were cause for smiles at Friday’s anniversary celebrations. But although HUCTW was able to reach an agreement, many workers are not as lucky. This contract negotiation took Herculean effort, the wit and will of a dedicated union, and unprecedented duration to reach. If middle class wages, and thereby middle class growth, cannot be achieved at Harvard with anything less than historic effort, then where can they be earned amid the many structural issues confronting those negotiating for middle class wages?

Sheryl Sandberg has gotten flack for her book “Lean In” because her critics charge that she is trying to help the ‘wrong’ group of women — wrong, in that compared to other women, Sandberg’s cadre are relatively better off.

But not only the direst cases are worth fighting for. In the case of labor, neglecting the middling for the sake of the worst off undercuts the potentiality of the American dream.

Two thinkers, both former Harvard Faculty members whom I read as an undergraduate, make particularly good arguments to this effect. One is John Kenneth Galbraith who wrote that a “basic feature of the good society… is the opportunity it affords for upward economic and social movement.” The second is John Rawls, who, in 1971, explained that without “equality of opportunity,” there is no justice.

This is the stuff that is taught in Harvard classrooms but has not always been put into practice by the University’s administration. The University should aim to set the bar for management-staff relations and encourage middle class growth in its workforce; this contract was a start.

There was much to celebrate on May 17. But if HUCTW’s first 25 years indicate the direction of labor in years to come, the union has a long road ahead.

Elyssa Spitzer is a recent graduate of Harvard College.
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