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Union workers seeking labor contract rally outside Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum

Employees say they need wage increases to keep up with cost of living

SEIU Workers and their supporters rallied in front of the Arnold Arboretum on Saturday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

To care for the rose garden, ponds, and maple trees at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, horticulturist Rachel Lawlor commutes close to an hour from her home in Millis.

She previously rented a home in Waltham for five years, but said she was forced to move further away from Boston to not live “paycheck to paycheck” in a region where living costs have climbed.

The arboretum’s skilled workers look after more than 16,000 individual plants on over 280 acres of land in the Jamaica Plain park. But many struggle to keep up with the cost of living in the area, and Lawlor said she’d like Harvard to “honor our expertise and devotion fairly.”

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On Saturday afternoon, more than 150 union workers and their supporters — including state Representative Samantha Montaño — marched in front of Arnold Arboretum, rallying for a fair contract for those in charge of the park’s upkeep.

The rally comes after the arboretum workers’ four-year contract expired on Nov. 15, with no set date for a resumption of formal negotiations, the property service workers union 32BJ SEIU said in a statement.

“These plants aren’t just from Home Depot,” Lawlor said. “They’re wild — collected from all around the world, and so it takes really skilled, specialized folks to take care of these collections.”

Ben Kirby, an arborist at the arboretum, said employees would like to see a bigger bump in their wages, as some are bouncing around from apartment to apartment since landlords have hiked prices.

“We find that the people that come and visit really enjoy the work we do and they appreciate us so much. It’d be nice to see that reflected in our wages,” he said.

Arborist Ben Kirby was among those at Arnold Arboretum on Saturday seeking a fair new union contract. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the arboretum was a refuge for many needing to get out of their houses in a safe way, horticulturist Conor Guidarelli said. Employees worked at the park when many stayed home and continued their careers virtually.

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“We love being professionals and making the arboretum a sanctuary for anyone and everyone who wants to come and visit, Guidarelli said. “All we’re asking from Harvard is to... return our buying power that we lost over the course of the pandemic.”

Protesters paced around the entrance to the arboretum, shouting chants such as “Hey, Harvard, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” and “When I say union, you say power.”

Harvard spokesman Jason Newton referred the Globe to a Nov. 16 email statement from Paul Curran, the university’s managing director of labor and employee relations, sent the day of a previous union rally. The statement said Harvard and union representatives met to negotiate “in good faith” six times in August and September.

”At the end of October with the parties still apart in several key areas, the University suggested engaging a neutral, third-party mediator, but SEIU has, to date, declined,” the statement said. “The University remains committed to reaching a fair agreement that supports our SEIU colleagues and their contributions to the Arnold Arboretum.”

The university and the union reached tentative agreements in certain areas, including an increased vacation accrual rate for employees with five or more years of service and a clothing allowance increase to $670 per year, the statement said. But those provisions won’t take effect until workers ratify a complete contract.

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The university declined to comment further.

Bill Rounseville, who lives near Arnold Arboretum, came to rally to support workers.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Bill Rounseville, 73, who lives near the arboretum, said he felt compelled to walk a few laps with the protesting workers.

“The arboretum is my backyard and these people do a wonderful job,” Rounseville said. “I want to support their struggle for a decent contract.”


Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.