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Harvard U. workers rally for better wages

Labor leaders say university’s raises don’t match inflation

Avery Bleichfeld
Harvard U. workers rally for better wages
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks in support of Harvard University workers who are demanding raises. Looking on are Greater Boston Labor Council Executive Secretary Darlene Lombos and SEIU 32BJ Executive Vice President Roxane Rivera. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

Members of Harvard workers’ unions rallied Nov. 9 to show solidarity with the university’s custodians and security guards, who are in the midst of a contract negotiation.

Represented by 32BJ SEIU, the custodians and security guards are looking to negotiate a pay raise, especially as the Boston area works on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, Harvard is offering a 2% pay raise, but members of 32BJ say that fails to keep up with rising costs of living in the area. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for the Boston area, which the federal government uses to assess cost of living, was about 4% in September, about 3.5 percentage points higher than September of last year and about one percentage point higher than September 2018.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who spoke at last week’s rally, said that a wage increase is a matter of giving the university’s custodial workers what they deserve.

“I think people get it twisted and think that we’re somehow making appeal for charity or trying to speak to their benevolence,” Pressley said. “This isn’t charity, this is reciprocity. These are benefits that have been earned, and that are owed and that are long overdue.”

Throughout the rally, speakers emphasized the burden they said custodians at the university bore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doris Landaverde, a Harvard custodian, said in a media gathering following the rally that she thinks Harvard’s offer of 2% is shameful.

“I was here in the COVID pandemic, working to keep the students safe, keep the Harvard community safe,” Landaverde said. “We’d work, we’d get sick, we’d have coworkers get COVID and they’re still at home. It’s a shame what Harvard did.”

For Roxana Rivera, executive vice president of 32BJ, the contract the union is negotiating now is different than previous contracts because of the pandemic’s impact.

“What we’re asking of Harvard is that they recognize this moment,” Rivera said during the rally. “We are coming off a pandemic — and we’re still in it — that hadn’t happened for a century. Now, what is the richest university of the world going to do to catch up? It is not like previous bargaining.”

She described the contract that the union is hoping for as one that would be a recovery contract.

“This is a very special moment in which Harvard, being the richest university in the world — their endowment only went up — they can really invest in the next number of years for these workers so that they can catch up from the tragedy of this pandemic,” Rivera said at the press gathering. “We are asking Harvard to do everything they can to ensure that these workers can recover from this pandemic.”

Rally speakers also focused on the importance of solidarity between the university’s multiple unions and their supporters.

Brandon Mancilla, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate and president of Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW), said the struggles of the many contracts that unions on the campus are trying to negotiate are “completely linked.”

“Harvard started at 0% with us,” Mancilla said of HGSU-UAS and the Harvard University Dining Services union, which he said were the first to go to the table with Harvard. “There would be no raises; there would be bonuses for some workers, not others. And when HUCTW [the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers], the clerical and administrative staff, went into negotiating this year, they were also told, ‘0% — here’s some bonuses.’”

Mancilla said that it was because those three unions all said they would not accept no pay raise that the university had to shift positions. He advocated for the same solidarity as Harvard’s unions work out what percentage pay raise they can expect.

According to reporting from The Crimson, Harvard’s independent student newspaper, HUCTW voted to ratify a new one-year contract Nov. 10. That contract includes a 2.9% raise and a $500 bonus for members who have worked at the university for at least 12 months.

HGSU has yet to ratify a contract. They went on a three-day strike at the end of October and set a deadline for a strike again Tuesday — this time of an undetermined length — if Harvard failed to come to the table with a contract that they find acceptable. They were focused on negotiating for a pay raise, as well as union security and better treatment of discrimination and harassment complaints.

According to reporting from The Crimson, on Monday, hours before the deadline, the HGSU bargaining committee unanimously reached a tentative agreement with the university on a contract. The contract includes pay raises for members of the union but conceded on the HGSU’s demands of better treatment of discrimination and harassment complaints and starting a union shop.

The HGSU strike technically began at midnight Tuesday, but the bargaining committee recommended members refrain from withholding work pending a 24-hour union vote on whether to end the strike. According to a Twitter thread from the union’s account, the ratification vote for the contract will be held from this Thursday to the evening of Nov. 27.

At the Nov. 9 rally, Darlene Lombos, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, invoked the strikes happening across the state and country, saying that the rally and strikes on Harvard’s campus are proof that the labor movement is vibrant.

“Did the tens of thousands of striking workers back down against John Deere or Kellogg?” Lombos asked, to resounding shouts of “No!” from the crowd. “Are workers across the country backing down against Amazon? Are the nurses backing down against for-profit St. Vincent Hospital? Are the Harvard grad students backing down to this institution? No f-ing way!”

Meanwhile, in front of the assembled crowd of union members and supporters, Pressley voiced a plea for Harvard to practice what it preaches.

“I find we do a very good job at espousing values as a society, and this institution does the same, but we need to practice them,” Pressley said. “Love and justice are verbs. Let’s act like it.”