Talk of the Union: Learning From the Past

Crippled by mass layoffs last summer, the Harvard Union of Clerical Technical Workers enters this year’s round of contract negotiations with squared shoulders.

Last year was worse than staff had imagined—275 employees lost their jobs, 100 of whom were HUCTW members.

The painful memories have not yet subsided, but Harvard staff are confident in improved labor relations, believing that the University’s financial situation has now stabilized.

By June 10, the union expects to reach an agreement on what will likely be a three-year contract, possibly more inclusive than in previous years.

Though the economic climate is still uncertain—the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has yet to close a budget deficit of at least $35 million—the union is not only pushing hard to mitigate the impact of possible budget cuts but also exploring the potential for a salary raise.


“It will be a year since members of our union have seen any kind of salary increase, and so that subject gets a lot of urgent attention,” HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger says.


Last year’s layoffs weren’t exactly unexpected. But many staffers say they were caught off guard when the layoffs struck their ranks.

“I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, this isn’t happening to me,’” says one Harvard employee who was laid off her first week on the job last spring and who wished to remain anonymous.

“I actually was pretty surprised last year with the number of layoffs that happened, and that was disappointing,” says Laura M. Johnson, a history department staff assistant who has worked at Harvard for 25 years. “I didn’t really see it coming. It was pretty shocking to me.”

Though Jaeger says he does not expect another round of cuts on the same scale, the union is taking measures to ensure that layoffs do not happen as abruptly and do not impact workers as adversely as last year.

“It’s a really rough generalization, and it’s a mix of things that happened last year in terms of layoffs, but we were overall maybe 70 percent satisfied by our union and management efforts to save jobs and to keep people working at Harvard if they were laid off,” Jaeger says. “We want to try to find ways to change policies and strengthen programs to make that number even higher.”

One of HUCTW’s primary concerns is to give their members a more prominent voice in the decision-making process of their divisions.

According to Article I of the current HUCTW contract with the University, union workers have the right to be part of “joint councils” that make planning decisions in the workplace.

“Our members are saying in a clear loud way, ‘We want to be involved. We want to be heard. We want to help find the right solutions,’” Jaeger says.


Many of the union’s concerns relate to by-products of last year’s economic crisis and the subsequent layoffs.

Slashing the workforce has also taken a toll on the remaining employees, Jaeger says, since they must take on additional responsibilities to make up for fewer staff. HUCTW officials found that more than 60 percent of respondents to an internal survey said they had seen an increased workload in the past year due to cuts.

“A lot of departments are trying to figure out how to function in an excellent way with reduced staffing levels, and there’s a lot of rethinking and tinkering going on with schedules and job descriptions, and interface with technology and all of those work systems,” Jaeger says.

The union is also looking to expand—a longtime goal that has been renewed when laid-off HUCTW members were given priority in finding new jobs at Harvard last year.

Jaeger says that both the University and its employees have realized that union membership comes with tangible benefits, and as a result, employees “around the edges” who perform clerical or technical tasks but are not members of HUCTW have felt marginalized.

But the negotiations are likely to leave key issues unresolved, given the size and diversity of the University. While Murphy says that the University and the union are looking at the terms of joint councils, he says he does not think that the new contract will solve workload problems arising from a staff shortage.

“That wouldn’t be involved in this negotiation. That would be something that we would have to continue to look at.” University Director of Labor Relations Bill Murphy says, adding that all faculty, administrators and staff have had to adjust their workloads over the past years, and that union leaders participated in impact bargaining to adjust workload around every HUCTW position impacted.

And as in all labor negotiations, wages remain a pressing concern.

“Our negotiating challenge is to figure out together what are the appropriate ways to reward the staff and to honor the contribution that the staff have made and are making everyday, and that’s never an easy set of questions, even in more prosperous times,” Jaeger says.

While Jaeger acknowledges strained economic conditions, he also says he believes that there are clear indicators of the University’s improving financial situation.

“There are a lot of very good signs,” Jaeger says. “We’re hoping that in a number of areas in the next year we’re going to be moving closer and closer to a calm, confident, healthy, growing University.”

Murphy, however, speaks with more equanimity.

“We’re still in a time of constrained resources,” he says.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at